Art and Photo Techniques for individual  & Group Therapy, art therapy supervision for registration/board certification and consultation to all professionals about client created art and specific populations.

Created by Angelena Gagliardi, MA, ATR-BC, LMFT at www.Colorfulhealing.com
Recreated here with creator’s permission.

            The larger your window of tolerance the less likely you will be reactive and more likely you will be able to be calm, even in the face of stressful situations. When you are in the window of tolerance, you can hear or feel the emotions gradually arise within you and pay them the respect they deserve. This allows you to better decode the message(s) that an emotion is trying to share with you in order to protect you from some form of danger. In some cases you will find that an emotion is trying to protect you from a danger that is no longer present or a danger that is actually not going to kill you, but might emotionally harm you. For example, a common emotional protection people may feel, that is actually not any real physical threat of death, is getting a broken heart. We may find ourselves pushing someone away with our emotions because of the threat of feeling heartbroken if they were to leave us in some way. It is great that our emotions try to protect us from the emotional harm as well. However, if we know the reason for the emotion then we can have an educated response. We can consciously decide if we are in a place in life where we are able to handle taking the risk of being in love or if we need to focus on ourselves and take care of other life events before getting wrapped up in the complexities of love. 


            In the window of tolerance image, you will notice that underneath the definition of the different arousal states (hyper/optimal/hypo) there are empty boxes. These are for you to note things and activities that help you transition through these emotional states and expand your optimal arousal state. Below are a couple mindful grounding techniques you can use whenever you feel stressed, to help increase your window of tolerance. If you find that you like them, these can be activities you add to your list of things that can help. It is best to start practicing them at times when you do not feel stressed so that they are easy, ‘go to’ or automatic, responses when a stressful situation arises. It is like creating a foundation for self-care that will always be there underneath all the chaos, when you need it. 


 A mindful grounding exercise - Before you begin, find a comfortable place to sit with your feet flat on the ground. You will be taking a total of 5 slow deep breaths in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds and out through the mouth for 6 seconds. During the, inhale imagine peaceful relaxing energy filling your lungs and flowing though your body. Try making a sound as you exhale your breath; like “vooooo” or “waaaaa”. The sound can help release built up energy and help you feel deeper in your lungs and body as the sound reverberates. If you would like to close your eyes it is ok or if you choose to leave them open then find somewhere you can have a relaxed soft gaze. Now you will take the first deep breath, feeling the ground under your feet and your back or legs against your seat. Second deep breath, hear the sounds that surround you trying to find one you like best. Third deep breath, feel your shoulders drop and muscles loosen from your head to your feet as if melting into your seat. Fourth deep breath, you notice your body and mind as one system with peaceful relaxing energy flowing together. Last deep breath, open your eyes slowly and come back into the space around you. 


 A bilateral grounding exercise - Using both sides of the body, or bilaterally stimulating, the body can help to ground you and reduce anxiety by increasing integration between the left and right hemispheres of your brain. Before you begin you will want to find a space where you can stand or sit comfortably and have enough room for a full arm’s length stretch. Begin by moving both hands at the same time in a random scribble like movement. Side to side, round and round, up and down, zig zag, wiggly or any combination of movements you can think of. After that feels ok, try adding in your arms to the movements. Then, as you continue to wiggle arms at the same time you can try crossing the arms in front of you and keep them crossed as you randomly move them. After a few seconds of that, you can uncross your arms as you continue to bilaterally move your arms and hands around. Try crossing them again, but this time with you non-dominant hand over the top of or above the hand you usually write with. Lastly, go back to normal side by side or random crossing over scribble type bilateral movements and whenever you want, you can stop. Place your arms at your sides and take a deep slow breath feeling the peaceful relaxing energy flow through your body and mind. 


            The expansion of your window of tolerance takes time and conscious effort. Please be kind to yourself as you are learning a new skill because no one knows how to do something without learning it. After a while you may find it frustrating, but keep pushing past that emotion to realize it is warning you of failure and disappointment. If you keep going you will feel better, but it really must take time. If the task seems too daunting to do on your own, then you may seek the professional help/support of a therapist. A therapist can be part of your support network to help you grow in these changes. Remember, you took years to learn to be the person you are today and just the same, it will take time to learn a new way to be in the world. Take a deep breath. We are in this together. 

Isolated Together:
How to Thrive with Shelter-in-Place Orders in a House Full of People

By: Cynthia Wilson PhD, ATR-BC
March 29, 2020

Windows of Tolerance: Emotional Awareness for Grounding & Balance

By: Cynthia Wilson PhD, ATR-BC
April 30, 2020

           Below is an artist’s rendering of what is called the window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is the space in the middle of emotional calmness, where we are able to tolerate more than we can when in the intensity of either end of the spectrum of emotions. The other ends of the spectrum are heightened energy or hyper arousal emotions like anger and decreased energy or hypo arousal emotions like sadness. Something to note that the image doesn’t portray, is that the window of tolerance can be different sizes for different people. The image implies that it is a stagnant size for all, but in my professional experience, I have found that it is not equal for everyone. It too can fluctuate, like everything can with people, based on what we have directly and indirectly learned via our experiences in life and interactions with others. For example, some people may feel like they jump instantaneously from sad to angry and very rarely feel a sense of calm. This person’s window of tolerance is likely not as large as depicted in the picture. However, with mindful practice it can grow and become more prominent, just like all things can with practice.​

            As we move into another month knowing we are to stay home and continue to social distance, we may find the initial sense of confusion and dread changing to defeat or overwhelm. In this time, it is common to feel the emotions shifting and almost shutting down at times. This loss of emotion as a result of so much intensity the last couple of weeks and no end in sight, can be a form of what is called apathy. It is a state of disconnect from our emotions where we go into a depression that doesn’t leave us feeling sad, but rather feeling a lack of anything.

            Apathy can leave you feeling disconnected from your family or friends. It can also feel like you are disconnected from your environment or even yourself. It does not mean you don’t care what is going on or don’t care about the people around you. Sometimes you can even feel a lack of caring for the things that used to bring you joy and leave you with no desire to do anything. This also does not mean you will never care again, or that you are broken in any way. These are normal apathy responses to intense and overwhelming situations or events that last for an extended period of time.

            It is important to realize that whatever you are feeling is ok. All emotions or lack of them are a normal part of the defense system that is designed to protect us in a way that gets us through the harm and out the other side, where we can heal. It is all for the sake of survival. Another thing to note is that we cannot control our emotions as they are part of an automatic defense system. We can, however, control our behaviors, actions or reactions in response to them. 


            Giving yourself permission to feel apathy or any emotion is the first step in reducing the stress and anxiety that hold it there. Then, thanking it for being there to protect you can increase grounding. Likely, these actions will feel weird or even forced. Neither of these steps will feel like they’ve really done anything at first, as you may be disconnected from things and self, but it opens you up for the possibility of shifting emotions and thoughts.


            When you feel any of the intense emotions of apathy, anger, sadness, or fear, you will need to claim some space for yourself to reground and balance. Self-regulation is the regulation or balance of your emotional state. Since emotions can’t be controlled, the act of taking space is one step in responding to your emotions in a way that takes control of your behavioral response. When you regularly take the space and time you need you will find that when life is stressful, you don’t get as upset. Your mind and body begin to learn that you will listen to their warnings and can be trusted to protect it.


            Here are some things to do to feel grounded in this uncertain time and reconnect yourself with the environment, people and yourself so that you can respond to your emotions in a way of respect, and appreciation. A grateful response to how the emotions are attempting to help you can make working with them and responding to them easier. Reacting vs responding to an emotion can be dangerous, as a reaction is something done without thought, in an automatic response and usually done with intensity that can cause harm to self, others or things around us. 


            During this time that you take for yourself, think of the emotion you are feeling and factually define what that emotion is. For example, if the emotion is anger, think of what the definition of anger is and what it does. Anger is a defense mechanism that protects us from danger by providing emotional and physical space between us and another, and also clearly defines our boundary line of how we are willing to be treated. Identifying and defining an emotion can be a step in calming you down as the brain must use an alternate area to activate that information. After you define the emotion, you can find what is happening in your life that might be causing the need to protect you in that particular way. It might be something from your past coming up now because there are stressors in your life that remind your body of past events. It might be something new that is stressful or potentially physically dangerous that needs to be dealt with. If it is something actively dangerous please call 911 or seek the help of a professional right away.


            If you find that the emotion stems from the past, but is aggravated by the present or comes from a current life stressor, you can begin the process of self-regulation practices that will increase your ability to deal with the current situation while further working on the past issue. Below are some strategies to re-center yourself after an intense emotion. If you do something that acknowledges and releases the emotional energy from the body, you increase your ability to focus and think clearly. Acknowledging the emotion and thanking it for coming in to help protect you can increase self-empathy. Asking the emotion what it needs (not what it wants) can help sort out how to respond to the emotion effectively.


Art- think of the emotion and create art without a plan. Go with lines, shapes, colors and the art materials that you are drawn to in the moment, even if you don’t know why. When you are done, feel the energy shift in your body and how you are now holding the emotion. What does it feel like now? Are you able to think of ideas on how to respond? Did the emotion get placed onto the paper? You can also step back from the image, rotate the image and see if there’s anything that comes up for you. My other newsletters have other self-care art activities.

Deep breathing - Take a few deep slow breaths. Inhale from the nose and exhale through the mouth. Try making your lower lungs fill up, making your stomach/diaphragm area of the body expand and collapse. Try imagining a peaceful relaxing energy going in and the intensity going out. When you feel the emotional shift, think of how to safely respond to your situation.


Journaling - This is a time to write ANYTHING that comes to mind. Don’t stop for spelling or grammar errors. Get out the words, the thoughts and emotions associated with the situation. When you feel your head has nothing left then, sit with the emotional shift for a moment. Write one word to describe yourself now.

Guided meditation - Listen to or follow a guided meditation or mindfulness script. These can be found online or rented from most libraries via their website. There are apps that can be downloaded as well. You can also see examples of mindfulness practices in my other newsletters.


Listening to music - Listen to or play music that is moving and soothing to you. Find a place that you can take a couple minutes to listen to a favorite song or type of music.

Physical exercise - releases the energy that is created in the body when there is an intense emotion. The emotion comes as a defense mechanism so it is connected to the fight, flight, freeze, fained death responses. All of these responses have chemicals that the body releases in order to perform these survival tasks. This is stuff that needs to be released from the body.


Tapping - A technique using the meridian points or pressure points on the body to help release the energy that emotions and defense mechanisms can produce. Tapping scripts can be found online and apps are also available. TheTappingSolution.com has many resources.

            To recap, emotions or the lack of emotion is normal, automatic reactions can be dangerous and empathy for self can help us respond effectively in any situation. Good luck trying these resources and being kind to yourself as you feel what you need to feel. The isolation continuing longer than we had originally planned causes so many additional changes in our lives. Every day we likely find more things that we need to navigate through, more things to learn about ourselves, and a new way to live in our changing world. We are in this together.

            We have been ordered to stay home for the sake of the nation, for the sake of our communities and the personal loved ones and coworkers whom are at high risk for severe illness or death resulting from infection of the COVID-19. We are all asked to take responsibility for ourselves and to help reduce the spread as quickly as possible. There are many challenges that come with this and as days pass we find challenges that we may not have foreseen otherwise. There are needs and wants that we might normally fulfill daily and had not realized it, until we now see that they are taken from us.

            This quick resource provides ideas of how to still get your needs met while maintaining a healthy relationship with the others in your house that you have been isolated with.

            Staying home when the entire family is home, when you have become the home school teacher, when you have become the primary caregiver to an elderly parent or isolated away from your elderly parents, when you have to share the home office space with your partner or other family members because you are all now working from home, and most importantly when (oddly enough in isolation) you never get any time alone anymore.

            To start the process of getting what you need you must first sort out what are the things you wish were different in your immediate life. Take some time just before bed or first thing in the morning, as the house is calm, to sit quietly and make notes or create art while thinking of the things you like to have in your life. Do this for as many days as needed to get the thoughts and emotions out. Then, figure out what of those things are wants and what are needs. What things make your life easier and what are things you can’t function without.

            Afterwards, scheduled meetings with each family member to sort out what these thing are for each of you. Talk to your family about needs and wants and make lists of these items you each need and want in order to work together to sort out how you each can at least get the things you need. This is a time not to judge what we need, but to support us each in getting our needs met so that we can survive and even potentially grow together as we learn more about ourselves and the ones we love.

A few things commonly needed:
Private Time - being able to just use the bathroom without interruption or knowing that someone is able to hear you, take a shower without waiting for hot water to replenish after everyone else has showered, ability to get dressed/ready for each day without someone asking something of you or just being in your space.

Sleep Schedules - change depending on kids at home, parents or partners working from home or being out of work, elderly parents now at home needing 24 hour care

Alone time - either in the house or outside the house, you may find that the lack of commute to work, the kids no longer at school or no official lunch breaks has taken this needed solitude away

            Some ideas to get these things: Get out of the house on your own by going for a drive, walk, run, bike ride, or stay home while others in the house go out for an activity (play catch, walk, ride bikes, go for a car ride, practice a sport/activity that they used to play before everything was cancelled, fly a kite, just 30 min in the front yard or driveway drawing with chalk, playing hop scotch, or making an obstacle course)

            Ways to spend the time: In a room to yourself (the closet can be a calm quite place too), in the car parked at the house or near a park or place you like to go (libraries and other places have Wifi you can use from your car), make art, journal, paint rocks and place them outside nursing homes for the isolated elderly to have something to look forward to every day, take a walk or go for a hike, do a nature scavenger hunt or adventure, tell family stories or legends around a candle, read a book, try that craft or project you have been putting off, learn a new skill (novel things help brain growth and increase stable moods), bake/cook a favorite food, get relaxing time in a bath or space to meditate, do yoga or some sort of grounding quite space of your own, schedule phone or video calls with friends to share what you are going through, have a book club meeting, knitting circle/art group session or just see their faces, and be sure to allow kids to have this same type of time with their friends too.

            We all need connection to the people we feel safe with and we all need to feel a sense of value, purpose and mental creativity. So, work towards reconnecting creatively with yourself and your support network, get connected to nature and find a way to give back or pay it forward. It is possible that if you help others it can help you feel better as you connect to others and increase positivity in your community. If you are able to do these things you will find that the restructure of your routine and life are not only manageable, but even enjoyable. We are all in this together.

Apathy and Other Emotions

In the Face of Another Month or More in Isolation

By: Cynthia Wilson PhD, ATR-BC
April 4, 2020