Professor Zindel Segal talks to a subject wearing electrodes during a mindfulness exercise (photo by Ken Jones)

Pioneering the psychology of mindfulness

Zindel Segal is a pioneer in the emerging field of mindfulness-based psychotherapy.

For more than 20 years, Segal has studied and promoted mindfulness as a way to prevent relapse in people who have suffered depression.

Using techniques such as meditation and yoga, patients learn to pay attention to their experiences, thoughts, and feelings as a way of heading off a depressive spiral.

Segal is currently the Cameron Wilson Chair in Depression Studies in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and is also head of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

But he's set to take on a new role as the director of training in UTSC’s new Graduate Department in Psychological Clinical Science this fall.

Segal spoke with writer Kurt Kleiner about his upcoming move.

What’s attractive about this position?
This program in psychological clinical science is a tremendous opportunity to build something from the ground up with a talented and committed core group of faculty. It also allows us to provide graduate training that integrates the scientific foundations of clinical psychology with the acquisition of assessment and treatment skills that are evidence based.

How did you become interested in mindfulness?
My own trajectory is a wonderful example how innovative treatments can be developed by drawing on basic research in cognitive and affective science. For example, work on mood-dependent cognitive processing has shown that for people with a history of depression, experiencing mild dysphoric moods can retrigger depressive thinking styles.

The risk here is that when setbacks occur, as they do to all of us, some folks may fall back into ways of looking at themselves that make them more prone to depression returning. If people could learn skills to stop these processing styles from dominating the mind, then the setbacks could be contained as temporary and not snowball into full-blown clinical relapses.

One of the key skills we found to be helpful was teaching people to attend to their thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental and curious manner. Doing so encourages active approach and curiosity of negative experiences, activates regulatory neural networks and provides people with greater choice in what do next. Most importantly, it provides an alternative to habits of suppression or distraction for getting rid of negative feelings. The beauty of it all is that regular practice of mindfulness meditation helps to train up all of these skills.

Do you expect the graduate program here to become a centre of mindfulness therapy?
Not really. I think that our blueprint for our program achieving a standard of excellence is having our graduates be proficient in a broad range of evidence-based psychological treatments. In the practice of mindfulness, there is less of a premium placed on talking and analyzing client narratives. In more traditional psychotherapy  people do need to talk and process their experiences. Our graduates will have exposure to these and other approaches.

Having said that, I do plan to continue my research program, which is centered on investigating the psychological and neural mechanisms of mindfulness practice. Who knows, if our work as a collective draws sufficient notice, an initiative such as an interdisciplinary centre for mindfulness studies may be warranted. Right now, though, I am focused on more proximal targets, such as getting our program ready for accreditation and enhancing its North American profile. 

Do you have your own mindfulness practice?
Yes. I meditate for 40 minutes in the morning. Not every single day, but the intention is nevertheless there. I also go to a yoga class once a week if I can manage it.

Kurt Kleiner is a writer at UTSC.

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