Where is an emotion? Using targeted visceroception as a method of improving emotion regulation in healthy participants to inform suicide prevention initiatives: a randomised controlled trial

Author: Steven Davey, Elliot Bell, Jamin Halberstadt & Sunny Collings
Conference/Journal: Trials
Date published: 14 Jul 2020
Other: Volume ID: 21 , Pages: 642 , Special Notes: DOI https://doi.org/10.1186/s13063-020-04479-9 , Word Count: 384

William James’ 1884 paper “What is an emotion?” has generated much recent interest in affective science regarding somatic contributions to emotion. Studies of interoception (“sensing the physiological condition of the body”) suggest that sensing specific parts of the body contributes to the production of emotion, namely when sensing the viscera (i.e. “visceroception” of the heart, gut or lungs). Improved visceroception has, for instance, been linked to increased emotional intensity, suggesting a role for interoception in emotion regulation that may pertain specifically to visceral bodily locations. Thus, in addition to asking James’ question, “What is an emotion?”, we ask, “Where is an emotion?”. Further, there is an evidence base pointing to the connections between emotion regulation and suicide, and between interoception and suicide. This is a preliminary trial investigating whether targeted interoception/visceroception improves emotion regulation. Ultimately, the overall project aims to inform suicide prevention efforts

The trial utilises a pre-test/post-test control group design, with two experimental groups undergoing visceroceptive interventions (focussing on areas pertaining to the gut or heart) and a control group. The interventions will run for 8 weeks. A spatial cueing task will measure reaction times to bodily changes relating to lower abdomen or chest focus. A stop/signal task will measure emotional inhibition, which is hypothesised to obscure awareness of active bodily locations. Visceroceptive ability will be tracked using a heartbeat estimation task, a water load test, and by self-report questionnaire. The sample will consist of healthcare professionals and healthcare students. Despite these being groups that represent a relatively high suicide risk among professional and student groups, all participants will be healthy, given the preliminary nature of this trial.

To our knowledge, this will be the first project to address whether emotional feeling presents as a localised bodily phenomenon and whether trained awareness of emotional localisation can improve emotion regulation. It will also be the first to investigate relationships between interoception and emotional inhibition (i.e. whether a sustained interoceptive practice leads to the disinhibition of bodily emotional sensations, which can positively contribute to emotion regulation). These empirical findings on emotion regulation from a healthy sample will be used to inform a desk-based enquiry into the role of embodied emotion in suicide prevention, which may make a significant contribution to a growing evidence base on interoception and suicide.