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Tired of scrolling through Doom? Time to check your body. 2024-04-17 05:18:52

Your nervous system is constantly bombarded with sensory signals from all over the world—whether in real life or online—and this can have a negative impact on your mental health, say researchers.

The key to understanding how these sensory signals affect you lies in a process called interoception, says Dr. Sahib Khalsa, a neurobiologist and psychiatrist at the Brain Research Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Interoception is the neurological ability to feel what's happening inside your body.

Interoception helps you identify what you're feeling

"It's an ongoing process," Khalsa says. "Your brain, spinal cord, peripheral nervous system... they are constantly monitoring what's happening inside your body. And sometimes you're aware of it. But most of the time, you're not."

Think about all the physical sensations you might experience on an average day: a racing heart, a stomachache, or the need to use the restroom. Noticing these signals and responding to them is interoception—our bodies and brains are constantly communicating what we feel.

But interoception can also happen subconsciously, says Khalsa, such as when blood sugar levels fluctuate. Your brain automatically responds to changes in blood sugar levels without your knowledge. Even the act of breathing is interoceptive: your breathing is largely automatic, a result of your body sensing the need for air, without consciously taking each breath.

"Interoception can also alert you to your mental health state," says Khalsa. "People with anxiety disorders often report a racing heart or difficulty breathing, maybe feeling like they're choking," he says. People with certain eating disorders might feel disproportionate spasms and bloating, while those with depression might experience a loss of appetite and unexplained pain.

How technology overly stimulates our bodies

This dialogue between the body and the brain can help us understand what's happening inside us, but it can also be overwhelming, says Khalsa. Our technologies can distract us from paying attention to these important brain signals and can also be a source of our suffering. We can scroll for hours, ignoring how tired or unhappy we are due to the scrolling.

"We are increasingly bombarded with sensory signals from our environment, external sensory signals," says Khalsa, "whether it's what we're looking at online, our social networks, or just the number of times we check our email."

And these external distractions can overly stimulate the nervous system, making it harder for us to notice what we're feeling, thereby exacerbating negative feelings like anxiety and tension.

Want to relax? Try giving your nervous system a break.

In his research on interoception and mental health, Khalsa studies "low-stimulation environmental therapy"—often known as sensory deprivation—where participants float in saltwater tanks in complete darkness and silence. The idea is that the sensory deprivation tank serves as a reset button for the nervous system, free from external irritants or signals that your brain must process.

According to Khalsa, float tanks can help people better pay attention to what's happening in their bodies. "When people float, the foreground in this environment is their heartbeat and their breath, almost like a freight train, right?" he says. "People notice that quite often, but paradoxically, they don't really get worried about it." Khalsa says that sometimes people experience claustrophobia or anxiety during their first float but may notice a calming effect after several sessions.

Khalsa believes these experiences can reduce stress and muscle tension. More importantly, they may help with more serious mental disorders, such as clinical depression and anxiety.

If you don't have access to a float tank, Khalsa suggests recreating this calming environment at home. Set your phone aside and find a quiet room where you can close the door, turn off the lights, take a few deep, cleansing breaths, and relax—free from distractions and with as little stimulation as possible. Doing this exercise for 30 minutes to an hour can help your nervous system rest.

"Silence is something that is increasingly under threat of extinction," says Khalsa. "How often can you say in everyday life that you're not doing something?"

This story was written by Rachel Faulkner White and edited by Amanda Orr. It's part of Body Electric—a six-part NPR series exploring the relationship between technology and the human body.

Body Electric was produced by Katie Monteleone and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour with production support from Rachel Faulkner White.

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