Mindfulness? Pseudoscience? Think again.
Author: Katherine Schwenger
Faculty featured: Brenda B. Toner, PhD, C. Psych
Faculty Affiliations: Professor, Department of Psychiatry, IMS Member
As I seated outside the office waiting for my interview with Dr. Brenda Toner, I started to become anxious, as I usually do. I began to contemplate the many things I may have done to better prepare myself for this meeting and started to nervously envision how the interview itself would turn out. These thought processes weren’t unfamiliar to me and for many other students who suffer from anxiety. Unexpectedly, the interview was a new realization. After three hours of discussing the importance of the mind-body connection as well as practicing mindfulness techniques, my anxiety was no longer present. I felt at ease and more connected with myself. It is so common for students to be focused on the past or future that we forget to live in the present. In its essence, this is mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. It is a daily practice that deepens over time.
For the past 30 years, Brenda has been involved with women’s health. Her main focus has been on mind-body connections in stigmatized disorders that are disproportionately diagnosed in women, such as eating disorders, functional gastrointestional disorders, depression, and anxiety.
Brenda’s curiosity for this connection can be traced back to her PhD thesis, which investigated test anxiety. She explained that when students were asked to speak aloud while taking a test, many students had a continuous stream of negative thoughts, fear of judgment, and self-criticism during the test.
After discussing the concepts of the mind-body connection and mindfulness with her colleagues Dr. Zindel Segal and Dr. Wanda Taylor, Brenda became inspired to formally study and practice mindfulness. Brenda has served as the Vice President of Education of Mindful Way Meditation and Retreat Centre, which was founded in 2009 by Dr. Taylor and is a registered charitable organization. The purpose of this organization is to provide a sanctuary for women in which to facilitate the understanding and practice of mindfulness meditation.
Benefits and Challenges of Mindfulness
When asked about the benefits of mindfulness, Brenda stated, “It can be both a tool and a way of being, and it gives you the ability to acknowledge your feelings without being consumed by it.” She further explained, “Based on scientific literature mindfulness can increase mental and physical stamina and improve memory, the immune system, anxiety, depression, and decrease irritability.” One of Brenda’s biggest challenges includes “convincing people that mindfulness isn’t an extra thing to do, but has the ability to make your life more enjoyable by increasing your human and emotional connection, ultimately making you more grounded and productive.”
University of Toronto Programs
At the University of Toronto, Brenda offers two different opportunities to learn more about the mind-body connection: a drop-in class, Mindful Moments and a fourth year course, The Psychology of Mindfulness.
Mindful Moments classes are free for University of Toronto students. There are many offerings and facilitators of mindful moments on campus and Brenda has lead one of these classes every Tuesday during the past Fall and Winter semesters. These classes include mindfulness exercises that can be integrated into your daily activities that will leave you more relaxed and resilient. Brenda acknowledges, “Many students have symptoms of anxiety and depression, but only a small percentage actually seek help. Most people suffer in silence.” She hopes that this program will provide an open, comfortable, non-judgmental and safe environment for all students to explore mindfulness.
The Psychology of Mindfulness (PSY408H) was developed by Brenda and focuses on the theoretical, research, and clinical aspects of mindfulness. Sitting in a circle and unplugging their devices, students gather once a week to explore and discuss their journey through mindfulness. For three hours, students are physically, mentally, and emotionally present. Students have described this course as “life changing.” One student stated, “I used to be very stressed and had a hard time in dealing with the stress at UofT and my personal life. This course changed my life. I’m more calm, patient, mindful and happy.”
What the Future Holds
Brenda’s hope for the future is that University of Toronto creates and integrates more mindfulness classes, workshops, and gatherings for students, staff, and faculty. On a societal level, she hopes that mindfulness is integrated early on in our education system as a preventative approach for health and well-being. Additionally, she wants to educate future mental health professionals about the importance and benefits of mindfulness as a treatment option. Brenda believes that in this fast-paced, technology-centered, and stressed environment that we live in people have lost the ability and awareness to relax. Furthermore, while commenting on our everyday routine, she indicates that, “… people walk around on auto pilot, lost in their own thoughts and worries, and not living in the moment. Mindfulness has the ability to make you present in your life.”
Overall, Brenda’s kindness and compassion for others is apparent in every aspect of her life. When asked how mindfulness has impacted her life, she states, “It has given me a way of feeling grateful and maintaining my energy in a sustainable way, while staying true to my authentic and passionate self.”