Improving your sleep can have a remarkable effect on your amygdala. The best approach to improving sleep is to take a careful look at your sleeping practices and make sure that they are healthy. The following sleeping practices can really assist you in achieving a good night’s sleep.
- Before you go to bed, practice the same relaxing rituals. The brain is very sensitive to patterns,and if you get into the habit of repeating the same steps before bed (for example, drinking a cup of tea, washing your face, brushing your teeth, and putting on your pajamas), you’ll train your brain to anticipate that sleep is coming. This will make it much easier to fall asleep.
- Eliminate light stimulation for at least one hour before bed. Avoid watching television or using computers or other electronic devices that shine light into your eyes (including cell phones) before going to bed. Your brain can interpret the artificial light as daylight, making it more difficult for your brain to prepare for sleep.
- Exercise during the day. Vigorous exercise isn’t necessary; any type of daily exercise can help promote sleep. Just try not to schedule your exercise later in the evening, when it can be counter productive if it’s too stimulating.
- Establish a consistent bedtime and waking time. Keeping a regular sleep schedule will help set your brain’s clock and establish a practice that becomes a pattern of responding. It is very difficult for the brain to adjust to sleeping on a schedule that’s constantly fluctuating.
- Avoid napping. Any nap more than about twenty minutes long can potentially interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night, and even twenty-minute naps later in the day can be detrimental.
- If you have trouble falling asleep, replace activating thoughts with relaxing ones. Focusing your thoughts on something relaxing is much more effective than trying to clear your mind. Music is helpful for some people, but others find that it doesn’t prevent anxiety-igniting thoughts and therefore they need to avoid listening to music. The left hemisphere often needs to hear words to keep it from generating anxiety-igniting thoughts. Get in bed, and if you don’t fall asleep quickly, read a book or listen to a podcast. You can listen to television or a video on the computer, as long as you don’t watch the lighted screen in order to focus your thoughts on less activating topics. There are also many recordings on YouTube consisting of meditative exercises, relaxing nature sounds, and repetitive mantras that are ideal for this purpose. When you begin to feel that you can fall asleep, immediately turn off any lights, close your eyes, and allow yourself to sleep.
- If worries haunt you at bedtime, schedule a worry time during the day. If you start worrying as soon as you get in bed, set aside at least fifteen minutes early each day for worry time. During that time, write down a list of all your worries. For each worry, write down either the best solution that you have, a note that you’ll take more time to consider the solution and decide later, the name of someone you can ask for help with the situation, or that you’ll live without a solution for the time being. Then fold the piece of paper and put it next to your bed to remind you that you’ve already worried at the appropriate time and need not do so at night.
- Ensure that your sleeping environment is conducive to sleep. Your room should be dark and quiet, your bed and pillow should be comfortable, and the temperature should be agreeable. If your environment is noisy, a fan or other white noise may be helpful.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods in the late afternoon and evening. All of these substances can interfere with falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping soundly. Even though alcohol is relaxing and can help you fall asleep, it interferes with entering the later stages of sleep, including REM sleep.
- Use relaxing breathing techniques to prepare for sleep. When you get into bed, slow your breathing down and breathe more deeply. Focus on relaxing your muscles and breathing out any tension.
- If you can’t fall asleep after thirty minutes in bed, get up and do something relaxing. Don’t remain in bed very long without falling asleep. Get up and do something calm and non-stimulating for a while, being sure to avoid computers and other light-producing screens, including cell phones. When you feel relaxed or sleepy, get back in bed. Using your bed primarily for sleep trains your brain to associate it with falling asleep.
- Avoid using prescription sleep aids. Many medications that promote sleep are addictive and lose their effectiveness after a relatively short period of time. They also can cause unpleasant side effects and even abnormal behavior, such as sleepwalking or eating while sleeping! When it comes to sleep difficulties, approaches that don’t rely on medications are preferable and much more helpful in the long run.
Sleep benefits the cortex as well as the amygdala, but the amygdala is especially sensitive to sleep deprivation. If you could use functional magnetic resonance imaging to see the increased level of activation in your amygdala after a night with limited sleep, you’d be amazed (Yoo et al. 2007). If you reflect on how you’ve felt after nights of reduced sleep, you can probably recall being more edgy or irritable. Your amygdala was likely contributing to this emotional reaction. Changing your sleep habits to ensure sufficient sleep can be very effective at reducing reactivity of the amygdala and decreasing your anxiety as a result.
Note: These sleeping tips are straight from the book Rewire Your Anxious Brain, how to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic and worry by Pittman & Karle. I am simply sharing an outstanding article.