Tech overload can impact mental health. Here's how interoception can help : Body Electric In part five: host Manoush Zomorodi investigates what information overload does to our physical and mental health. Could our tech use be interfering with the critical dialogue that takes place between the body and the brain? Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Sahib Khalsa shares his latest research on interoception — the brain's ability to sense how the body is feeling — and how finding time to unplug from our devices can help us tune into our body's natural signals.

Also in this episode: neurologist Caroline Olvera takes us inside the "TikTok tics" outbreak — exploring why thousands of teens developed Tourette's-like symptoms after watching TikTok videos in 2021. Plus, how a school in Washington, DC helps kids stay connected to their bodies by creating a high-movement, low-tech environment.

Click here to find out more about the project: npr.org/bodyelectric

We'd love to hear from you. Send us a voice memo at bodyelectric@npr.org. Talk to us on Instagram @ManoushZ.

Overwhelmed by doom scrolling? Time to check in with your body

Overwhelmed by doom scrolling? Time to check in with your body

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Daniel Hertzberg
Body Electric Part 5
Daniel Hertzberg

Your nervous system is constantly bombarded with sensory signals from all around you — whether in your real or online life — and it can adversely affect your mental health, researchers say.

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

Interoception helps you pinpoint how you're feeling

"It's a continuously unfolding process," Khalsa says. "Your brain, your spinal cord, your peripheral nervous system ... they're constantly monitoring what's happening inside the body. And at times, you become aware of it. But most of the time, you're not."

Think of all the physical sensations you might experience in a typical day: a pounding heart, an aching stomach, or the urge to go to the bathroom. Noticing and responding to these signals is interoception, our bodies and brains in constant communication about how we're feeling.

But interoception can also happen subconsciously, Khalsa says, like when your blood sugar levels fluctuate. The brain automatically responds to the change in blood sugar without your awareness. Even the act of breathing is interoceptive: your breath is largely automatic, the result of your body sensing the need for air without consciously drawing each breath.

Interoception can also alert you to the state of your mental health as well, says Khalsa. "People with anxiety disorders frequently report feelings of heart palpitations or difficulty breathing, perhaps feeling that they're choking," he says. People with certain eating disorders may feel disproportionate stomach cramping and bloating, and people experiencing depression can feel a loss of appetite and unexplained achiness.

How technology overstimulates our bodies

This dialogue between the body and the brain can help us understand what's going on in our bodies, but it can also get overwhelming, says Khalsa. Our technology can distract us from noticing those important signals from the brain — and it can also be the source of our distress. We can scroll for hours, not paying attention to how tired we are, or how unhappy scrolling makes us feel.

"We are increasingly being bombarded by sensory signals in our environment, external sensory signals," Khalsa says, "whether it's what we're looking at on the internet, whether it's our social media, whether it's simply the number of times we check email."

And these external distractions can overstimulate the nervous system, making it harder to notice how we're feeling and thereby worsening the negative sensations we might feel, like anxiety and tension.

Want to relax? Try to give your nervous system a break

In Khalsa's research on interoception and mental health, he studies 'reduced environmental stimulation therapy' — often known as sensory deprivation, in which participants float in tanks of saltwater in complete darkness and silence. The idea is that a sensory deprivation tank is like a reset button for the nervous system, without any external stimuli or signals your brain has to process.

Float tanks might help people pay better attention to what's going on in their bodies, Khalsa says. "When people float, what comes to the foreground in this environment is their heartbeat and their breath, almost like it's a freight train, right?" he says. "People notice it quite a bit, but paradoxically somewhat, they're actually not feeling anxious about it." Khalsa says that sometimes, people feel claustrophobic or nervous during their first float, but may notice the calming benefits after several uses.

These experiences, Khalsa says, can reduce stress and muscle tension. And perhaps more significantly, they can help with more severe mental distress like clinical depression and anxiety.

If you don't have access to a float tank, Khalsa suggests recreating that calming environment at home. Set aside your phone and find a quiet room where you can close the door, turn off the lights, take some deep cleansing breaths, and relax — with no interruptions and as little stimulation as possible. Doing this for 30 minutes to an hour helps your nervous system take a break.

"Silence is an increasingly endangered species," Khalsa says. "How often can you say that in your day to day environment, you took the time to not be engaged in something?"

This story was written by Rachel Faulkner White and edited by Amanda Orr. It is part of Body Electric — NPR's 6-part series exploring the relationship between technology and the human body.

Follow along with the whole series here. Talk to us on Instagram @ManoushZ, and on Facebook @tedradiohour, or record a voice memo and email it to us at BodyElectric@npr.org.

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

Original music by David Herman. Our audio engineer was Carleigh Strange.