If you’ve ever tossed and turned in bed after a big breakup or sudden job loss, then you know how major stressors can impact sleep. But did you know micro-stresses — aka the annoying little things that happen to you every day — can ruin your sleep, too?
While small, daily hassles and frustrations might not seem like a big deal, licensed clinical psychologist Holly Schiff, PsyD says they can add up quickly and take a toll on your wellbeing. Micro-stresses flood your body and brain with adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that raise your heart rate and set off your fight-or-flight response, she explains. “Frequently being in a heightened state of alertness can delay the onset of sleep.”
The stressful chatter in your mind is also really tough to ignore as the day winds down, says Dr. Michael Wusik, a licensed clinical psychologist. “Though trying to be helpful, our brains like to remind us of our to-do lists and worries when we have a quiet moment,” he tells Bustle. “It's easy to snooze these thoughts during the day when we have loads of distraction. But it is a lot harder when we are trying to sleep.”
Of course, you’re way more likely to lie awake at night if you’re extra sensitive to stress and/or have anxiety. “People with anxiety are often too inclined towards being awake, and indeed with all those pulses of adrenaline throughout the day, sleep can become impaired,” Alex Dimitriu, M.D., a double board-certified doctor of psychiatry and sleep medicine, tells Bustle. That’s why it’s helpful to know the hidden micro-stresses that may be keeping you awake — as well as what to do about them.
1. Overthinking Conversations
You’ve got plenty of opportunities for awkward social interactions in your daily life, whether that means talking to a coworker, texting a friend, calling your mom — or simply chatting with the cashier at Trader Joe’s. It always feels good when these moments go smoothly. But if you encounter a snag, don’t be surprised if you think about it late into the night.
While folks with anxiety are more likely to replay every word of a conversation, this type of stress really can impact anyone. “There is so much ambiguity in social interactions that we can [experience a lot of stress] trying to analyze every little thing,” Wusik says, noting it’s especially true if it felt awkward.
If you find yourself lying awake with this habit on the regular, Wusick says it may help to schedule “worry time” about an hour or two before bed. During this block of time, you’ll turn off any distractions — TV, phone, laptop, etc. — pull out a pen and paper, and write down everything that’s on your mind.
Journal about these awkward conversations as well as whatever else is weighing heavy on your mind. “By giving your brain an outlet, it reduces the pressure to overthink these things later in the evening,” says Wusick.
2. Using “Negative Labels”
When you get stuck in traffic, do you jam out to your favorite playlist or do you honk and let it ruin your whole day? If you send an email with a typo, do you laugh it off as an honest mistake, or do you belittle yourself?
Wusik says negative labeling of everyday mishaps increases your stress response, which in turn can take a toll on sleep. “The negative thought patterns during these events can really lead you to ruminate over why you did what you did, and what possible bad things can happen as a result,” he says.
The next time you catch yourself viewing something through a negative lens, try switching up your inner dialogue and giving yourself the grace of a more positive spin. It can work wonders when it comes to relieving this micro-stressor before it ruins your sleep.
3. Over-Scheduling Yourself
While you might be under a lot of pressure to get as much done in one day as humanly possible, it’s important to know that an over-packed schedule is yet another hidden micro-stressor that can make it tough to catch some Zzzs.
According to Dimitriu, it’s all due to the lack of downtime, which is an essential part of balancing stressful daily tasks with relaxation. It’s tough, but the best cure is to say “no” to more things. “Do less stuff and have more time to sit and stare between activities,” he says.
4. Running Late
With over-scheduling comes another micro-stressor: perpetually running late to an event or appointment. Not only does it release the dreaded stress hormones — think about your heart pounding as you run after the train — it also often causes a snowball effect where you end up being late for everything else. Cue a flood of stress that can throw off your entire day.
If you tend to run late, Dimitriu suggests being stricter with your time, particularly in the mornings. “The stress reduction of not being late to work often outweighs those last five minutes of sleep,” he says. It may also help to set alarms throughout the day to remind you of upcoming events.
5. Putting Off Chores & Tasks
It can be tempting to push tasks on your to-do list for another day, especially if they’re stressful. But stress management educator Carlee Myers says leaving them to loom over your head is 100 times worse.
“The reason [it keeps you awake] is that this thought can actually trigger the sympathetic nervous system, or fight, flight, or freeze mode, into activation,” she tells Bustle. “This system prepares your physical body for stress-related activities such as running or fighting, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what we're trying to achieve when attempting to fall asleep.”
The simple answer is to stop putting things off, but Myers says you can also help yourself fall asleep when your mind is racing by doing something to calm your nervous system — think along the lines of taking a warm shower, reading, or listening to chill music.
Disorganization can also catch up with you. If you have a messy apartment or lack a routine, you’re more prone to feeling stressed.
Think about how you might have trouble finding something, like your keys. “This not only causes you to go into the fight-or-flight stress mode of what to do and how to find them, but you may also go into a negative thought spiral in which you beat yourself up for misplacing them,” Dorlee Michaeli, MBA, LCSW, an EMDR-certified psychotherapist, tells Bustle. “This negative self-talk may, in turn, lead to you replaying the event either before or during your sleep, reducing either the quantity or quality of sleep.”
The best way to combat this micro-stressor? By being more purposeful throughout the day. “Take a look at how you respond to these stresses and make sure to not become self-critical,” Schiff says. “For the micro-stresses you can avoid, try to adjust your routine.” For example, you could try putting your keys in the same spot every time you get home. It may also help to do a quick clean at the end of the day so your place feels nice, and you start the next day off on the right foot.
7. Small Arguments
Minor disagreements and arguments can keep you up, too. “Typically, these arguments might not be thought of as upsetting enough to impact sleep,” licensed psychotherapist Dr. Faith Pérez McGowan tells Bustle. And yet there you are, wide awake at 2 a.m.
Again, this has everything to do with your stress hormones, as well as the way the brain waits for peace and quiet to dial up your thoughts. “You might be thinking about what you wished you had said or how you would respond differently to the person,” Pérez McGowan says.
If you find yourself ruminating, get out of bed. “Do not return to bed until you start to feel drowsy and when you are able to tell yourself that you will continue thinking about the stressor tomorrow — not while in bed,” she says. You can’t cure stress, especially not in the middle of the night. But you can certainly make minor changes to better cope with it.
Du, J. (2018). The relationship between stress and negative emotion: The Mediating role of rumination. DOI: 10.15761/CRT.1000208
Kalmbach, D. A., Anderson, J. R., & Drake, C. L. (2018). The impact of stress on sleep: Pathogenic sleep reactivity as a vulnerability to insomnia and circadian disorders. Journal of Sleep Research, 27(6). https://doi.org/10.1111/jsr.12710
Khalid, A. (2019). The relationship between procrastination, perceived stress, saliva alpha-amylase level and parenting styles. Psychology Research and Behavior Management. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6619418/
Krystal, A. D., Prather, A. A., & Ashbrook, L. H. (2019). The assessment and management of insomnia: An update. World Psychiatry, 18(3), 337–352. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20674
Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. (2017). Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep, Volume 9, 151–161. https://doi.org/10.2147/nss.s134864
Scullin, M. K., Krueger, M. L., Ballard, H. K., Pruett, N., & Bliwise, D. L. (2018). The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(1), 139–146. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000374
Zoccola, P. M., Dickerson, S. S., & Lam, S. (2009). Rumination predicts longer sleep onset latency after an acute psychosocial stressor. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(7), 771–775. https://doi.org/10.1097/psy.0b013e3181ae58e8
Holly Schiff, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist
Dr. Michael Wusik, licensed clinical psychologist
Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified doctor of psychiatry and sleep medicine
Dorlee Michaeli, MBA, LCSW, EMDR-certified psychotherapist
Carlee Myers, stress management educator
Dr. Faith Pérez McGowan, licensed psychotherapist