Heating or cooling can lead to high stresses in rocks due to the different thermal-elastic properties of minerals. In the upper 4 km of the crust, such internal stresses might cause fracturing. Yet it is unclear if thermal elasticity contributes significantly to critical stresses and failure deeper in Earth's continental crust, where ductile creep causes stress relaxation. We combined a heating experiment conducted in a Synchrotron microtomograph (Advanced Photon Source, USA) with numerical simulations to calculate the grain-scale stress field in granite generated by slow burial. We find that deviatoric stresses >100 MPa can be stored during burial, with relaxation times from 100's to 1000's ka, even in the ductile crust. Hence, grain-scale thermal-elastic stresses may serve as nuclei for instabilities, thus rendering the continental crust close to criticality.