All of us have had stressful or traumatic events that didn’t get processed through our nervous systems because we didn’t have the help we needed to fully feel and process the difficult emotions and sensations. The emotions and sensations of these events were thus filed away in unconscious areas of the nervous system, into a compartment* we might label “too overwhelming to deal with”, and we’ve used various coping and self-management mechanisms to keep that compartment locked ever since. One element of our consciousness, “secondary consciousness,” is the main force in suppressing these difficult emotions and sensations. And this suppression has served us in some ways, enabling us to manage our daily lives without being overwhelmed by past experiences. However, to heal from these traumatic events and to move beyond them, we need to overcome this self-management and suppression, and allow the emotions and sensations to be processed in a safe and effective manner. “Selective inhibition,” a key element of Psychedelic Somatic Interactional Psychotherapy (PSIP), puts our self-management mechanisms on hold so that those emotions and sensations can come all the way to the surface and be processed by our primary consciousness. Self-management mechanisms can be very habitual and thus difficult to notice, especially the ones we developed early on. Part of the role of a PSIP therapist is to gently point out these management mechanisms - taking big breaths, fidgeting, daydreaming, joking - so that the client can inhibit them.
Selective inhibition asks us to trust our bodies to process our unresolved trauma and stressful events through the autonomic nervous system. Put another way, the selective inhibition process guides us to surrender the secondary consciousness of the mind, which analyzes, interprets, and makes meaning, to the primary consciousness of the body—the somatic, emotional, felt sense of experience. Primary- and secondary consciousness are terms coined by neuroscientist and psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris.
Think of an antelope shaking out its trauma after narrowly escaping the death grip of a cheetah. The antelope is not thinking its way into and through the shaking with secondary consciousness. The movement is an automatic process employed by the autonomic nervous system. In other words, the trauma is processed biologically, not psychologically. PSIP works under the assumption that a human nervous system has the same biological capacity for autonomically processing trauma as that antelope, or any other mammal.
Selective inhibition thus refers to selectively inhibiting those aspects of secondary consciousness that guard against those “too overwhelming” sensations and feelings. By inhibiting the secondary consciousness “guard,” the autonomic somatic mechanisms available through primary consciousness can be accessed.
If you’re a trauma therapist, you may question whether selective inhibition leads to re-traumatization rather than healing. You might ask, “What about The Window of Tolerance? What about titration and pendulation?” These strategies rely on the client’s continued use of secondary consciousness as the therapist guides a step-wise exposure to deeply buried emotions and sensations. In contrast, primary consciousness has a much greater tolerance for emotional intensity than secondary consciousness does, though relational support is essential for primary consciousness to take over in an effective manner. Moreover, our most difficult traumas lie well outside of the Window of Tolerance of our secondary consciousness. Therefore, PSIP does not rely on titration and pendulation to widen the Window of Tolerance of secondary consciousness; it relies on relationship to go into the wider window of tolerance of primary consciousness.
I can’t overstate the importance of relational trust with PSIP. In order for the intense emotions and sensations that surface with selective inhibition to get processed by the autonomic nervous system, clients need to have enough internalized connection and trust with friends or family or a spouse or a romantic partner, especially for their inner child. Put another way, the nervous system holds the experience from the past, the experience of the inner child, so we need to go at the pace of the nervous system to gain the trust of the inner child. If the client’s inner child believes that no one can be trusted with their most difficult feelings, then the PSIP therapist needs to become the safe person to trust.
The time it takes to build enough trust and safety for the client’s inner child depends on various factors, such as the severity and complexity of the trauma. Without enough internalized relational safety and trust, one’s deepest traumas can’t be processed all the way through the autonomic nervous system. This is especially true when it comes to attachment trauma. Attachment trauma happens when there is ongoing loss of relational safety and trust early in life, and thus, at whatever age the client seeks therapeutic support, relational safety and trust must be restored for the attachment trauma to be processed and healed.
The loss of relational safety and trust is the result of years of lack of emotional intimacy and resonance, misattuned or entangled connections, unpredictable responsiveness or reactivity, and boundary violations. This is why PSIP is ongoing psycholytic therapy, rather than large-dose psychedelic therapy. The more severe the attachment trauma, the more time is needed for corrective experiences of attunement, responsiveness, resonance, and of boundaries being respected and supported to establish relational trust. Furthermore, due to the ongoing nature of attachment trauma, it also takes time to process the sensations, emotions, and dissociation that were filed away during childhood.
For more on Selective Inhibition and PSIP, join the Psychedelic Somatic Institute’s newsletter list so that you’ll be notified of the free, introductory, bi-monthly PSIP webinars. These webinars are a great place to learn how PSIP works with dissociation, attachment, solution, selective inhibition, primary and secondary consciousness, negative transference, and more.
*I refer to “compartments” in the nervous system in a figurative sense. The actual locations and mechanisms of how memories/sensations/emotions are stored are not fully understood.