How to Tame Impatience

Feb 18, 2021 | Change, Stress

When will the wait be over?

Have you been struggling with a lot of impatience lately?

The thoughts may sound something like:

Why isn’t that person responding to my email faster – doesn’t she know I’m on a deadline?

Doesn’t that driver – or chatty person in the line – in front of me know I’m in a hurry?

When the heck are my kids going back to school, or my family getting the vaccine, or this whole Covid situation going to be over?!

Imagine if we’d known a year ago how long this pandemic would last?! I don’t know about you, but I think my system would’ve gone into full-blown panic.

A desire without control

When we have a desire or expectation for something to either start or end at a certain time, and it doesn’t, we can get impatient. And, because making that something happen is out of our control, often our impatience is followed by frustration, anger or even panic.

And in today’s fast-paced digital culture with instant messaging and downloading, next-day deliveries, and on-demand entertainment, our expected timelines tend to be shorter and tolerance for delays lower.

Unfortunately, our high expectations and lack of control over outcomes sets us up for stress. (Some researchers like Richard Restak, author of The New Brain, even argue that our current fast-paced culture is actually rewiring our brains.)

Impatience in the brain

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

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 turns to panic or anger, for instance, this is a good sign that the brain is (a) switching off the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of our brain most responsible for high-level thinking and self-regulation; and (b) activating the amygdala, an area in the limbic brain most associated with reactivity and the fight-or-flight response. (For more on the PFC and stress, see this post.)

Interestingly, as research has shown, when we’re feeling intense emotions such as anxiety, fear or anger, our bodies send more signals to the brain, which then heightens the experience and warps our sense of time. So 1 minute of waiting in serious frustration can feel like 5 minutes.

So the greater our emotional reaction, the longer the wait can feel.

Taming impatience

When we notice impatience setting in, rather than wishing it away, we can use it as information to see if we need to correct what we’re predicting.

We can explore: what are my expectations; are they realistic; and what is within my control?   When we answer these, we give the brain greater clarity for its prediction process.

Perhaps some part of a situation is within your control, in which case you can decide what action to take. This will help calm the brain’s stress response – because when we’re stressed, the brain wants us to act.

But usually there will be little or nothing you can do – hence the impatience. And fighting against that is both stressful and exhausting.

When I was giving birth to my first daughter, I kept wanting to know when it was going to be over, because I wasn’t sure I could keep going.  But I couldn’t know, and no one could tell me. Still I fought against not knowing to the point of frustration, anger, and even panic.

Then my husband finally said, “Just get through this contraction.” That’s all. And with that, I was able to release the frustration and panic to get through 18 hours of labor.

Can you pause the brain’s prediction process, release the expectations, and just deal with the present moment?

You may have to do it for a few minutes, hours, days, weeks or even a year or more – hello, pandemic – but in the present we can endure the discomfort, one moment at a time.

Bonus: if in the present moment you can practice some gratitude, you will go even farther in taming your impatience, according to research.

Photo by Jaelynn Castillo 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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