Patience: why we lose it & how to build it

Jan 18, 2024 | Change, Stress

Patience may be a virtue, but it can be hard to practice. When we want change to happen,  giving it time is often not part of the equation.

Often our desire for things to be different comes with a sense of urgency. But that urgency can lead quickly to frustration.

Then, to get rid of the frustration, we might give up.

What happened to my patience?

When we lose patience, there’s an urge for some kind of action or result that doesn’t happen.

Cognitive scientists believe that the feeling of impatience originates from the hunter-gatherer days when it helped us survive by motivating us to move on from a place or hunt that was no longer feeding us.

But today’s impatience is a different story. While having an urge can motivate us to act, if that action doesn’t give us fast results, we might experience frustration or anger.

Our fast-paced digital culture with instant messaging, next-day deliveries, and on-demand entertainment, feeds into expectations of quick turnarounds and shorter timelines. Our tolerance for delayed results seems to have lessened all around. Some researchers like Richard Restak, author of The New Brain, say that our current fast-paced culture is actually rewiring our brains.

Lack of patience and the brain

The brain is always predicting what’s coming next so it can help us prepare a response. So when predictions and expectations aren’t met, the brain takes notice of the error, and stress often follows.

Either we recalculate our expectations and move on, or – especially when something feels important – there’s a heightened emotional reaction in the limbic brain.

When impatience rises to frustration or other uncomfortable emotion, the brain becomes more active in the limbic area which is associated with reactivity and the fight-or-flight response. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, which responsible for high-level thinking and self-regulation, becomes de-activated. (For more on the PFC and stress, see this post.)

Interestingly, research also shows that with intense emotions, our bodies send more signals to the brain, which heightens our experience and warps our sense of time. So 1 minute of experiencing serious frustration can feel like 5 minutes. That can be hard to withstand.

So with impatience comes less capacity to control our response. And one easy solution is to walk away or give up on our goals.

Simple ways to build patience

However, we are not powerless to change this. In fact, our brains were built for change – that’s why we have neuroplasticity (the ability to create new neural connections).

First thing we can do to build patience and guard against giving up is to remember WHY this change or goal is important to us. Values are important to the brain, and will help us with motivation and self-regulation.

Second, when we notice we’re losing patience, rather than wishing it away, we can use it as information and try these 3 practices.

  1. Assess your expectations. What is your expected timeline? Is it realistic? What is within your control, and what is not?  When we answer these, we give the brain greater clarity and guidance, which it craves.
  2. Embrace a larger perspective. Instead of looking through a keyhole, a small point in time, expand your view to consider the situation or change you want through a wider lens. In the grand scheme of your life, how do you see the time this change is taking? For example, if it took 10 years to build a habit, how long might you reasonably expect to take to change that?
  3. Practice gratitude. Gratitude has been shown in many studies to improve executive functioning, self-control and well-being. If you can’t find something in the situation to be grateful for, find something unrelated. Better yet, practice gratitude every morning to strengthen those neural connections.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.”

Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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