(This is a post in the Choosing Change series inspired by the work of Dr. Tina Bryson, USC. I’d also like to suggest you read Changing your Mind with LoveWorks and Changing Minds with the None Middle Prefrontal Cortex – Dr. McGill)


The Wheel of Awareness (adapted by Dr Ken McGill) (Printer-Friendly Version)

The Wheel of Awareness is a tool developed by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson that among other things, helps us realize two important truths regarding how our mind operates and processes information. The first truth appears on this side of the handout (everything “north” of the bird’s eye view of the person looking “up”), and you’ll find the second truth on the opposite side of this sheet (everything “south” of the bird’s eye view of the person looking “down”).

Here’s the first truth: The experience of troubling, traumatic or “triggering” events in our life could cause mental and/or emotional dysregulation within us, which diminishes our ability to “see the larger picture” beyond the scope and range of the particular stressor that’s currently bothering us.

These dysregulating stressors, which are embedded in our life-experiences (with descriptions next to the first 4 pictures below), create a type of “mental tunnel vision,” where our ability to focus elsewhere (like on solutions) becomes seriously impeded. When in this mental state, we may report feeling trapped, stuck, or frustrated because we “can’t think about or focus on anything else.”

If the dysregulating events listed below were located on the outer rim of a wheel (hence the “Wheel of Awareness”), and you were situated in the middle or “hub” of the wheel, where the only thing you could focus on was the distressful event(s) itself, then, as depicted in the picture below, your awareness, focus, attention, perspective, and viewpoints could become limited to the data and stimuli that are currently dominating your mind.

This focused “attention on affliction” is problematic in that it limits your ability to see beyond your current set of circumstances. This means your ability to render self-care to yourself, or, be open to alternative ways of viewing and integrating information, or, your ability to imagine and brainstorm possibilities with others, or, your ability to work with others to create and develop win-win strategies could be delayed,  interrupted, or worse yet, lost!

Take a look at the next 4 pictures and their description below. Imagine the images as being on a wagon wheel at the 10, 11, 12 and 1 o’clock points. Which of the events (there could be more!) is creating distress in you and are threatening your ability to see the larger picture?


Unintegrated Adversity: Distress occurs when hurtful experiences do not receive a therapeutic response in a timely manner. Denial, Dismissal or other Ego Defenses are the culprits that interrupt the safe and caring expression of behavior that could help you feel better, which is when actions like this are needed the most!

alcohol couple

Dyadic Dysregulation: Distress occurs due to the presence and continuation of conflict in your relationship(s). These episodes “emotionally hijack” you, which means your energy will be misspent and the all-important intimacy needs that beg to be addressed will be ignored until a recommitment to safe and boundaried behavior is practiced by all.


Posttraumatic Repetition: Distress occurs because current episodes of conflict could trigger traumatic memories from your past. This type of conflict triggers “fight, flight and freeze” responses and/or the experience of emotional regression, which results in your engagement of child-like reactions versus intentional and therapeutic behaviors delivered by the adult part of you.


Emotional Flooding: Distress occurs when emotions like guilt, fear, shame, pain, humiliation, grief, rage, sorrow or hopelessness threaten your ability to feel reassured, safe and grounded. Emotional balance in your brain and body is stymied because the “downstairs” emotions are not being helped by your “upstairs”cognition(s).

page 1 head

So here’s a couple of points about the pictures above:

Important Point # 1: Distress limits our vision, focus and awareness on the Wheel of Awareness to about  130° of the 360° circle. That means there’s about 260° left in the circle that remains unnoticed. Are you willing to look at the remaining part of the Wheel of Awareness, which could be of great assistance to you?

Important Point # 2: Focusing on the remaining part of the Wheel of Awareness is about 4 – 5 deep breaths away. However, you’ll need to psychologically (and in some cases, literally) stand up and turn around to change your point of view. After you’ve done this take a look at the other side.

Make sure you’ve taken the 4 – 5 deep breaths. After you’ve done that, stand up and turn around so you can change your vantage point to see the other part of the Wheel of Awareness. Now, read on!

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Here’s a few more points about the “other side” of the circle:

Important Point # 3: The other 260° of the Wheel of Awareness invites you to view and use the 9 “functions” of your Middle Prefrontal Cortex. This part of your brain helps you to see the other options, possibilities, and solutions that are obscured or goes unnoticed and subsequently unintegrated when you’re dysregulated.

Important Point # 4: Integrate and practice the 9 Middle Prefrontal Cortex functions to regain your calm, refocus your thoughts and position you to make collaborative decisions with others as you endeavor to repair relationship connections and experience good outcomes!

The Nine Middle Prefrontal Cortex functions on the Wheel of Awareness

Vector Body temperatureBody Regulation: Regaining calm is the first and most important gift for you to experience in your brain and body. You cannot be anxious (or dysregulated or distressed) when you’re relaxed, so practicing activities like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, aerobic exercise or even walking (for bilateral stimulation of your brain) will help you to discharge pent up energy that interrupts your ability to focus.

puzzle piecesAttuned Communication: When you’ve regained your calm, pull back to the hub of the wheel and focus your attention only on strategies that help you to “stay in your lane” verbally as you speak to others. Using words, tones and processes that demonstrate you’re “cooking with C.O.A.L.” (being curious, open, accepting and loving) help you to create safety, respect and to facilitate understanding.

screenshot 2019-01-15 15.12.14

Emotional Balance: Shifting your vision from the spokes on the wheel that end in dysregulation to the other spokes where your attention is focused on practicing behaviors that create regulation and attunement means you’ve made a cognitive shift called a “cortical override” with your emotions. The override succeeds because higher-brain strategies are used to constrict lower-brain reactivity.

response flexibility

Response Flexibility: When the regulation, attunement and balance are experienced in your brain and body, typically more “spokes” (where your focus is on options, solutions and possibilities) begin to appear on your Wheel of Awareness. Taking the cognitive “road less traveled” invites you to explore, look at, consider and integrate viewpoints that are far beyond your current pain or distress.

screenshot 2019-01-03 23.07.15

Fear Modulation: Developing awareness of what possibilities could or do exist at the end of the other spokes on the Wheel of Awareness doesn’t mean you’re ignoring your fear. Not at all. But it does mean that you’ve chosen to integrate other information and (especially human) resources that permit you to envision a different and possibly positive versus fearful outcome as the adult part of you helps yourself!

screen shot 2019-01-03 at 12.17.41 pm

Insight: Insight that yields perspective, solutions and possibilities are achieved by taking regularly scheduled “Time-Ins,” per Dr. Bryson. These moments, created by silence and prayer (and your use of other spiritual disciplines) help you to reflect, deliberate and be intentional as you “S.I.F.T.” your mind. “SIFTing” means you’re continually paying attention to and monitoring your Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts that could be part of your solution/resolution to the set of circumstances that’s currently bothering you.

hug cry

Empathy: Practicing and becoming proficient with the 9 Middle Prefrontal Cortex functions means you’re getting better at recognizing there’s more than one way to look at people and life circumstances. Your insight, helped by your Intuition and by the Values you’ve elected to live by (your Morality), will assist you to deliver the appropriate Empathetic response to yourself and to others in the right way at the right time.


Morality: Aspiring, then living a moral life reflects which values, virtues, ethics, mores Changing your Mind with the practice of LoveWorksand principles matter to you, which could be demonstrated or delivered in concrete and measurable action(s) at any given moment. Morality, whether intuited or learned, “re-minds” us that we’ve uploaded therapeutic options that exist on our Wheel of Awareness, ready to help us to come to our own assistance or to the assistance of others.

Woman Looking in Mirror

Intuition: And with Intuition we’ve come full circle on the Wheel of Awareness, as this unique part of your Middle Prefrontal Cortex, aided by knowledge that comes from listening to your body, helps you to discern then focus your attention to “take the next right step” toward the part of the rim that results in experiences marked by co-regulation, collaboration and cohesion!

Thanks for reading this post on “The Wheel of Awareness” and for endeavoring to live beyond any life-circumstances that serve to threaten your serenity and effectiveness!

As time permits, please visit the other blogs written by Dr. Ken McGill: Daily Bread for Life and “3 – 2 – 5 – 4 – 24″ for additional information that could be helpful. I welcome your comments below or via email and your favorites, your retweets and your “+1’s” if you have a brief moment and find the information helpful. Again, it is my desire to provide the very best info for your consideration.

TeleHealth/Video counseling sessions are available for those who prefer to meet online – Dr. McGill

Businesswoman presses button psychological counseling online on virtual screens. technology, internet and networking concept.

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. I have the greatest respect of the qualifications you have attained in order to help others the best u possibly can . That s what i was like in my career ( nursing) . Like me i can sense u did none of this for your own glory . My young neighbour joanne ,s husband left her and their 2 young children for Joanne s mother over Christmas . My heart aches for her and her darling girls and the distain for her mother especially how she could do that to her daughter and granddaughter s . Suppose i was just thinking , looking at coping strategies that might help joannne. My greatest respect Dr Ken ,

    • Thank you Jane – I’m so glad that the post is helpful to you!

      • If u can think of any links to signpost me to that could be of use to my vulnerable wee neighbour I would b most grateful . She s very raw at the moment and the girls and God are keeping her going but when the time is right i would like to b able to comfort and help her heal

  2. Respect for doing your best to help others . That is a God given gift and im sure a humble priveledge for you. ( I was a hospice nurse in a specialist palliative care unit ). God gets u through the vast amounts of emotional distress you meet but u do get overwhelmed n saturated . Look after yourself Dr Ken


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About Dr Ken McGill

Dr. Ken McGill is an ordained minister and has been involved in counseling for more than 25 years. Dr. McGill holds a Bachelor's degree in Religion from Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University), a Certificate of Completion in the Alcohol and Drug Studies/Counseling Program from the University of California at Los Angeles and a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University. Dr. McGill received his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Family Psychology from Azusa Pacific University in May, 2003. Dr. McGill's dissertation focused on the development of an integrated treatment program for the sexually addicted homeless population, and Ken was "personally mentored" by dissertation committee member Dr. Patrick Carnes, a pioneer in the field of sex addiction work. Dr. McGill authored a chapter in the text The Clinical Management of Sex Addiction, with his chapter addressing the homeless and sex addiction. Dr. McGill is also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the States of Texas and California and Mississippi, and is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, through the International Institute for Trauma and Addictive Professionals (IITAP). Dr. McGill had a private practice in Glendora, CA (Aspen Counseling Center), Inglewood, CA (Faithful Central Bible Church), and Hattiesburg, MS (River of Life Church), specializing in the following areas with individuals, couples, families, groups and psychoeducational training: addictions and recovery, pre-marital, marital and family counseling, issues related to traumatization and abuse, as well as depression, grief, loss, anger management and men's and women's issues. Dr. McGill also provided psychotherapeutic treatment with Student-Athletes on the University of Southern Mississippi Football and Men's Basketball teams. Dr. McGill served as the Director of the Gentle Path Program, which is a seven-week residential program, for people who are challenged with sexual addiction, sexual anorexia, and relationship issues. Dr. McGill also supervised Doctoral students in the Southern Mississippi Psychology Internship Consortium with the University of Southern Mississippi. Dr. McGill was inducted into the Azusa Pacific University Academic Hall of Honor, School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences, in October, 2010. Dr. McGill currently works as a Private practice clinician with an office in Plano, Texas, providing treatment with people who are challenged in the areas mentioned above.


Daily Bread for Addressing Compulsion