Micro-Stress Might Be Killing Your Sleep and Outlook on Life


You might think that only major stressors, like a death in the family or losing a job, affect your mental health, wellbeing, and ability to get a good night’s sleep. They certainly do! But there’s growing evidence that a more insidious type of stress called micro-stress is a major contributor to poor mental health and sleep problems.

In other words, it doesn’t take a major life calamity or event that’s ten on the stress scale to cause major mental turmoil and insomnia. A series of micro-stresses that occur over a short period of time can cause insomnia and negatively affect your mood.

What is Micro-stress?

Micro stresses are small, frequent stressful events that in isolation might not cause problems, but when they occur frequently or over a short period, they take a toll on your emotions and physical health. The more often these micro-stresses happen, the greater the impact they can have on your sleep and mental health.

What is an example of a micro-stress? It’s an encounter with something stressful that alone isn’t overwhelming, but when it occurs in the context of other micro-stresses over a short time interval, harms your well-being.

For example, you get up in the morning to get ready for work and discover the suit you planned to wear has a big stain on the front. You get in your car to drive to work, only to encounter a wall of traffic that makes you 20 minutes late. When you get to work, you discover your boss has an extra assignment for you, and you still haven’t completed the last one. These smaller episodes of stress by themselves might not push your mental health buttons, but a sequence of them close together does.

Micro-stresses are like small cracks forming on something that weakens its structure but doesn’t cause the object to break. Yet if the small cracks keep forming, the object ultimately shatters. That’s what can happen to your psyche with a series of micro-stresses. You can deal with them for a while, but they pile up and finally get the best of you, and you end up with mental stress and sleepless nights.

How Micro-stress Affects Sleep

Insomnia is an epidemic that few people talk about. An estimated 30% of the population suffers from short-term insomnia, while a smaller number has chronic insomnia. Although insomnia can have various causes, stress is a factor for many. Since most people can’t identify why they can’t fall asleep, it’s often not a major stressor that’s causing sleeplessness, but micro-stress, small stressors that add up and cause unconscious worry and distress. You might not even be aware that small stressors are wreaking havoc with your shuteye.

According to Michael Wusik, a clinical psychologist, those micro sources of stress are less problematic during the day when you’re distracted by other things but become more problematic as the day draws to a close and you have less to distract you.

How Can You Deal with Sleep Disruptions Due to Micro-stress?

One approach is not to let those micro stresses build up. Identify and manage them at the time they happen. To address them, you must isolate and acknowledge them. One way to do this is to write in a journal nightly. Get your thoughts and feelings out of your mind and on paper.

In your journal, identify the micro-stresses that made your day challenging and how you felt at the time. Writing in a journal gives you a chance to vent and release your feelings out into the open. That takes the sting out of them and reduces their power over you. Some people find that writing in a journal before bed is the most helpful, as releasing those thoughts makes it less likely they’ll keep you awake.

Manage Your Stress Before It Manages You

Another way to keep micro-stresses from threatening your mental health, peace of mind, and sleep is to have tactics in your back pocket for stress management. One of the best is mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness meditation, you discover how to focus on the present, not what happened in the past. You learn to engage with the present moment, rather than focus your mind on the micro-stresses that caused you mental turmoil.

Science supports mindfulness to manage stress. A meta-analysis of over 200 studies found mindfulness can break the stress cycle and ease depression and anxiety. The benefits of meditation even extend to your physical health, as it helps you relax and lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. Practicing nightly mindfulness and being more mindful during the day will help you deal with the inevitable micro-stresses of life.

Also, minding your breathing can reduce your body’s stress response. Practice mindful breathing by inhaling deeply through your nose for 3 seconds, holding it for 2 seconds, and exhaling through your mouth for 4 seconds. It takes practice to overcome the tendency to breathe rapidly and shallowly, which activates the stress response in the body.

The Bottom Line

It’s not just the big stressors that get to you. Little stressors can add up to bigger mental health and sleep problems. You don’t want that to happen. Do not let micro-stresses build up without resolving them. Keeping a journal helps you get your frustrations on paper, and mindfulness will help you better deal with them – and that’s positive for your mental and physical health.


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