Impatience: Why We Feel It and What To Do About It

Oct 20, 2016 | Stress

Hurry up!

Do you ever notice yourself wanting people and things to hurry up?

Maybe you’re stuck behind a slow driver in the fast lane (why don’t they move over?), waiting for a reply call or text (haven’t they read my text already?), or waiting too long for the internet to load…

Going slowly when you want to go quickly can be frustrating and send us, and our brains, into reactive mode.

I know the feeling well. Usually when I’m trying to get my kids out the door to get somewhere on time, they don’t seem to care about the clock. They take their time. To them, finishing their play is more important than anything on my agenda.

All this hurrying isn’t helped by the lives we’re leading. We live in a fast-paced society with personal devices and products that provide speed and instant gratification – and then there’s social media and television, too.

This emphasis on time and speed leads to us feeling impatient a lot.


Impatience is an unwillingness to wait for something or someone.

Given what we’ve got going on around us, and the busy lives we lead, it makes sense that we speed ourselves up to get things done, and we expect the same of others.

But cognitive science says that the origin of impatience in humans was much different that what we see and feel today. Impatience arose from our hunter-gatherer days and told us when to move on from a place or hunt that was no longer feeding us. So according to evolution, impatience was a survival emotion because it motivated us to move on. (For more details, see “Why Your Brain Hates Slowpokes”.)

Frustration and expectations

The German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel said, “Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there.”

And that’s how impatience leads to frustration or anger from being unable to do something you want to do.

It’s easy to see how we can quickly get to anger. We want something done, usually by someone else, and we want it tout-de-suite, as the French would say (i.e., immediately).

Well, when you want something quickly but have no control over it being done, that’s when anger can set in. Road rage is an extreme example of this.

It’s also about our expectations. Frustration sets in when we have expectations that aren’t being met. When we expect someone to get right back to us or move to the slow lane and they don’t, we get frustrated.

With instant downloads, realtime messaging and tweets, next-day deliveries, and even fast-food, society’s pace is quickening, and with that so can our expectations.

Unfortunately, this 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

What does happen to the brain when we’re impatient?

When impatience turns to frustration, this is a good sign that you’re beginning to switch off the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of our brain most responsible for high-level thinking. At the same time, you’re activating the amygdala, the area of the brain most associated with reactivity and the fight-or-flight response. (For more on the PFC and stress, see my last post here.)

And when the amygdala kicks in, our thoughts and behavior frequently go downhill. Stress hormones rise and anger sets in.

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.

Control is another factor in how we experience time. When we feel we can’t control something, like the speed of another driver or the internet, the time will seem to pass more slowly.

5 tips for handling impatience

So what can we do to stop impatience from leading us down the rabbit hole of frustration and reactivity?

  1. Notice. When you’re expecting people and things to be faster than they are, notice your expectations. Awareness is the first step to working with the feeling of frustration. Try questioning your expectations and imagining another point of view.
  2. Compassion. When possible, can you have some compassion for the other person involved? They probably don’t have the same expectations or priorities as you do. In the case of my children, for example, they aren’t trying to frustrate me or be late, they’re just focused on what they’re doing in the moment.
  3. Control. Focus on what you can control, and plan for it. Plan on things taking longer, and schedule yourself more time when you can. Rushed in the morning? Get up earlier. Rushed on the way to work? Leave earlier, and drive slower.
  4. Take a moment. When you notice impatience, stop and take some deep breaths. If you can take a few minutes to meditate, that’s even better. Or add some yoga or other calming exercise to your daily routine. This will set you up to rewire the brain towards patience.
  5. Add some time to instant gratification. Challenge yourself to put some greater time and distance between you and your favorite fast social media outlet or your phone. If you have a habit of checking your texts the second you hear the notification, or checking email or Facebook too frequently, try extending the wait period.

Patience is a virtue

I know through clients, and my own life, that working with impatience can be challenging, but it is a challenge that is worth meeting. The results are greater peace for yourself, those around you, and better health for the brain.

What do you experience impatience about? What happens when it comes up? Please share the post, or your thoughts below.

Remember – as my mom likes to say – “Patience is a virtue.”

Photo by Nicolai Bersten at


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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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