For over eight years, over the course of working with over 500 students and their families, we came to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Red Mountain approach is different — and that it works.
From the beginning, we knew from established research that mindfulness helps to regulate the nervous system. We knew it helps the brain to create dopamine and serotonin. We typically used some of the following word tracks to explain the difference our approach makes:
“Between a stimulus and response is a gap. The mindfulness-based approach we use at Red Mountain allows the gap to expand, so our students develop the ability to have more choice over their behavior.”
“This approach reduces impulsiveness, and creates new habits which replace the old ones. When under stress, our students get into the habit of slowing down, instead of speeding up. This, again, creates the possibility of choice.”
“Most people go through life reacting to stimuli. When you learn how to meditate, and especially when you’re able to apply mindfulness skills to your behavioral or mental health issues, you create the option of responding rather than reacting.”
All of the Above Statements are True
The application of mindfulness is how we separated ourselves from our competition. There are plenty of good transitional programs out there, and they do good work. But what made (and still makes) Red Mountain different is the application of mindfulness, as taught by legitimate, sanctioned teachers. When combined with cutting-edge therapy, executive functioning skill development, and an excellent peer culture, the practice of mindfulness allows our students more choice, more control over their behavior, more authenticity, less reactivity, less impulsiveness, and more ability to reflect and see how the outcome of their choices will affect their lives. This, in itself, seemed sufficient.
But it bothered us that we didn’t know quite how this was happening. At the beginning of our ninth year, we came across the work of Dr. Andrew Huberman. Dr. Huberman is a professor at Stanford University who focuses on brain science. He studies the autonomic (automatic) nervous system—the part that controls our “non-voluntary” responses (such as digesting food). He describes the autonomic nervous system as being a “see-saw” which is a continuum, on one end of which is alertness, and on the other end, calmness (also known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system).
This affects a spectrum of unconscious feeling combinations such as calm but alert; panicked but alert; calm but unaware; and panicked but unaware. And a lack of awareness about what is happening within our autonomic nervous system sets us up for failure, because it predisposes us being reactive rather than creative when it comes to constructing our life. “This is all kind of obvious,” Dr. Huberman states, “and dates back 100 years or so. We’ve known this for a while.
“What’s interesting and more relevant nowadays,” he goes on to say, “is to think about one’s own interpretations of these signals and how that relates to anxiety and exploration, and to think about where the nodes of control are. In this see-saw model that I’m putting forward, the see-saw has to include what I would call a hinge, a location in the middle in which you can voluntarily adjust the see-saw toward being more alert, or being more asleep.
“For many people, they find that their overall level of autonomic arousal is either inappropriate or inadequate for the demands of their life. Inappropriate meaning their heart is racing, they feel more jittery, more as if…worry would be the default…than is appropriate for their circumstances. For other people, they feel more exhausted than they would like. They’re having a hard time leaning into the pressures of life. Both of those…originate in the autonomic nervous system. We can reliably say…that is not the consequence of the alertness system or the calmness system being disrupted, but rather that hinge in the middle is dis-regulated.”
That hinge, in Red Mountain parlance, would be the part of us that is aware of what is going on inside of us. An awareness, ideally, of how we’re doing, how we’re feeling, and how that will affect our day. Rather than falling into our old habits, we can consciously choose what we want to do, and how we want to approach our goals.
Dr. Huberman continues, “We now know what that hinge is, and this is based done by colleagues of mine at Stanford, in particular David Spiegel. His work and our work have shown that the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has direct communication with…brain areas that are absolutely crucial for this issue of whether you feel ‘right’ for your circumstances, whether you translate that into curiosity and exploration or anxiety.”
So, if we feel completely paralyzed before a test, for example, the “hinge” is misaligned. We are not, in fact, in terrible danger taking the test, even though we may feel we are. Another example is road rage: a disproportionate reaction caused by a lack of awareness. Yet another example would be staying in bed all day because we feel we can’t possibly face the pressures and demands on us, even if they are relatively benign and manageable. The feelings and body sensations may be exaggerated, but they are real. The problem is that our interpretations of them, likely based on past negative experiences, are out of proportion.
Dr. Huberman again: “If I were to make a prediction as to what the buzzword in popular neuroscience is going to be in the next five years…it would be the insula…(which) is responsible for interpreting all those bodily signals. It essentially is a funnel for all those signals…(including) emotion and memory. The insula is really an incredible hub for information about somatic, bodily signals…and the prefrontal cortex is in communication with the insula. The insula sits as a different sort of station in that it’s reporting to the conscious areas of the brain” what the autonomic nervous system is doing (feeling).
So, the insula is reporting to our conscious awareness what our unconscious mind is doing. We have long stipulated that the point of therapy is to make the unconscious conscious. Mindfulness, in addition to regulating the nervous system, also bring unconscious feelings and impulses into our awareness so we can work with them intentionally, rather than being dragged around by them. This creates flexibility and creativity, and the ability to be at ease in different situations. Dr. Huberman’s research “supports that…the prefrontal cortex is a flexible, rule-setting structure. Much of life…is about applying different rules in different contexts. What we know is that the insula and the pre-frontal cortex are both intimately involved in this conversation that establishes wh(at is) appropriate for a given situation.”
That’s it! In a nutshell, success in life is all about being adaptable to a situation.
Whether due to anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction or other circumstances, our students have, in the past, been unable to be flexible enough to behave appropriately and proportionately to a given situation.
What excites us about this new language is that it helps us to understand that mindfulness practice allows for the development of the insula, so that our students can:
- Gather information about their autonomic nervous system (essentially, “how am I feeling today?”);
- Apply this information to their present circumstances (“what is expected of me today” / “what do I want to achieve today”); and
- Determine the right actions to take to achieve their goals, given the current physical and emotional state.
We’ve been doing this for years, but finally there is a scientific language to apply to it. We now understand that the full integration of the Red Mountain program helps our students to develop a very specific area of the brain (the insula), which regulates behavior and choices based on data they have gathered about their autonomic nervous system on a given day.
When applying that data in a new, healthier way over time, a new life is created. This life is based on choice, planning, execution, executive functioning, emotional regulation, and goal-setting. As we have seen time over time in hundreds of cases, the result is the achievement, little by little, of the life the student has always wanted.