I loooove me some pasta! Maybe it’s because I’m part Italian, maybe because it is a staple of so many wonderful memories, or maybe it’s because it is delicious. I can’t be entirely sure. BUT what I know is that it is not only useful if you want a delicious meal, but it can be useful in therapy too!
Now the pasta I am talking about is not a rigatoni, cavatelli, or farfalle. No, it is one of those nice long thin pasta noodles – think of a spaghetti, angel hair, or one of my personal favorites – linguine! Most of us are familiar with using spaghetti noodles to connect young people with their bodies and work on relaxation. In this exercise, like this script here, you ask the child to tense their body like an uncooked spaghetti noodle (noticing the sensations), and then relax their body to be like a cooked noodle noticing those sensations and the difference - all paired with breathing.
I have been using these delicious noodles to help young people learn more about the window of tolerance. More specifically, how to we help young people identify and regulate through the distress to stay in their prefrontal cortex integrating both the emotional and rational/logical parts of our brain to make the best decisions we can in any given situation. Wheeewww – this is so much easier to describe with noodles!
Now, how does pasta help us do this? Well I am so glad you asked. Back to that nice long pasta noodle! When the pasta noodle is uncooked it is rigid with little flexibility. When we put any pressure on it, even the tiniest amount – it breaks! I use this metaphor to process what it looks like to be out of the window of tolerance and “break” – potentially anxiety, rumination, rigidity, inability to engage in perspective taking, anger outbursts, etc., all with the slightest trigger or pressure.
I also talk to young people that you don’t want to cook noodles too long because they also get mushy, lose their shape, and break apart easily. Pasta also actually loses taste and nutrients too! We can process this like hypoarousal and the numbing out we can experience when we get into this state. Like mushy blah tasting noodles.
Next you bring it back to that perfectly cooked al dente pasta noodle and process that these noodles have just the right flavor, are firm enough to hold their shape, but cooked enough to have flexibility. This is the window of tolerance where we can handle and regulate through the ups and downs of life while still holding our shape. Wiggly and flexible, handling whatever life can throw at us! Here you can brainstorm what kinds of things help young people stay in the window of tolerance, handle distress, and stay emotionally and cognitively flexible.
The last step is my favorite part! You process the experience of what the noodles look like in the boiling pot of water when they go from uncooked to cooked. I like to think of it as the pasta dancing in the pot! Then – with the client leading you come up with your pasta cooking DANCE! Yes – dancing like the cooked pasta in the water as a prompt and reminder to stay flexible! These dances are so fun, whole body, wiggly, flexible dances!
Bonus points for this activity if you actually have the energy to make some cooked pasta to bring in!!
What are your favorite ways to teach emotional regulation? Any other foods that lend themselves to the window of tolerance? Let me know and leave a comment below!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.