Calming An Overactive Brain–My Day In Pacifica

Today I am taking a seminar with William Sieber calling Calming an Overactive Brain. He’s an excellent presenter, with a good sense of humor, a down to earth speaker. He’s got a nice balance of enough confidence to be a an excellent speaker without being arrogant. This is quite rare in the seminar business. Even though there’s a lot of stuff I already know I’ve learned a number of  interesting things. The seminar is on the ocean in Pacifica, and outside the windows of the meeting hall I can see the waves crashing on the sand.

One funny thing happened at lunch. I had hurried out to the next door cafe so I could get a table before the crowds hit. Dr. Sieber showed up, looking for a table. I invited him to join me at my table. We started talking and discovered some remarkable commonalities! Both of us had attended Yale for training, me for undergrad, and he for graduate school. He had worked closely with Judith Rodin and Peter Salovey while there. Judy Rodin had been my first psychology professor, and probably the one that influenced me to go into psychology. Peter I had known while teaching at the Bridge, Stanford’s peer counseling center, many years before, and in whose book I have a chapter on Listening Skills. Eventually he went on to teach at Yale, and now is Yale’s president. More surprisingly, Dr. Sieber and I both interned at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, in different years! We had a fun lunch reminiscing.

About the seminar. He spoke at length about sleep and it’s impacts on health and wellness. For instance, one study showed that those who got less than 6 hours of sleep were 42% more likely to get diabetes. Or that those with the most disturbed sleep were 97% more likely to die in the next 20 years. Poor sleep makes you more prone to pre-diabetes, anxiety, upsetting emotions, not to mention lowering overall mood and vitality.

Less sleep also affects appetite and eating. Leptin is the hormone that lowers our appetite, and ghrelin is the hormone that increases appetite. With sleep deprivation our leptin goes down, and our ghrelin goes up, and on average we consume 250 calories more on days after a bad night’s sleep. This doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up to about 25 pounds of extra weight per year if you chronically sleep poorly.

I also learned how to assess sleep. The key metric is “sleep efficiency”. This means what percent of the time you are in  bed trying to sleep are you actually asleep. A good number is 90-95%. This is hard.  It means if I am in bed for 8 hours a night, I am asleep 95% of the time, or all except 24 minutes. What is your sleep efficiency? He went over how to use the sleep efficiency log to diagnose sleep problems and guide treatment.

One other interesting factoid for all of you pet lovers. Fifty-three percent of pet owners have disturbed sleep due to their pets.  Maybe we should all shut the door at night and train our pets to sleep somewhere else other than in bed with us.

He discussed how to fix common sleep problems. One such pattern is mine, the delayed sleep cycle. This is the night-owl pattern, going to bed late and getting up late. To fix it, he suggested a short term use of sleep aids to shift the cycle to earlier bedtimes, combined with bright light in the mornings, and no screen light for an hour before bedtime. Cutting back on caffeine use is also helpful.

Others suffer the early phase shift, those who fall asleep too early, and get up too early. To shift these people he recommended getting bright light exposure in the early evening so the melatonin production is suppressed until later in the evening.

In the afternoon we got into discussion of moods and control. Discussing anxiety, he explained the key role that perceived control over situations plays in creating or ameliorating anxiety. Exercise turns out to be a strong treatment for anxiety. Most people with anxiety disorders do not exercise more than once a week, and those who exercise 3 or more times a week rarely have anxiety disorders.

Then he turned to relaxation training for anxiety. He made a great point—that even if you train people to relax deeply, the probability of them continuing to practice even four weeks later is very low. So instead, he shared a 20 second relaxation. Take two deep and slow belly breaths, exhaling for longer than you inhale. While doing that go somewhere relaxing in your mind, and experience that place (ie the beach) in the sensory modality of your preference—seeing, hearing, smelling, or feeling. Make up a two word description of that sensory experience, i.e. “Warm sun”. Repeat that phrase as you take your 2 deep breaths, during the exhale.

He suggested pairing this relaxation practice with something you do multiple times a day. So for instance, pair it with hitting the Send button on your email. That way you will remember to practice a quick relaxation many times a day.

He also shared James Pennebaker’s work, which I often use with patients. Pennebaker found that writing about traumatic events for just 30 minutes a day for 4 days in a row had a fairly profound impact on future emotional and physical health. Interestingly, the initial impact was negative, more anxiety and upset, and more susceptibility to illness. But after three to six months, the pattern reversed, with people showing less upset and anxiety, and better health.

Finally, he shared some info about new findings about heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the change in the rate of your heartbeat over each beat and each several seconds. It turns out that having MORE HRV is better for both mental and physical health. People with anxiety disorders have less HRV. And it turns out the the three factors that most predict low HRV are: sedentary lifestyle, a cynical and hostile view of life, and anxiety.

Can you retrain your heart rate variability? Yes, with both breathing retraining, and with biofeedback. And it turns out that when you learn to increase your HRV, your anxiety goes down. Very interesting and cool stuff.

The final part of the workshop was about mindfulness. I won’t even try to summarize this part of the seminar, as it was very detailed, and even profound. Perhaps I’ll blog about it later.

Overall, it was a good learning experience, with a wonderful view of the ocean the whole time!

Now I need to go to sleep early….


Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *