Have you been wrestling with impatience recently?
It seems to be common, especially in the pandemic. Each day that goes by can feel like one big waiting game. Waiting to see if we get it. Waiting out a quarantine. Waiting for things to open up. Waiting to know what the Summer holds – or even the Fall. And of course, waiting for a vaccine…
And as we continue to curb our own behavior, following rules around social distancing – as have for many weeks now – we might start to focus on the little things around us that help us feel like we have some greater control.
But this can try our patience too.
Origins of impatience
With impatience comes an urge for some kind of action, but the action is often frustrated.
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 to act is helpful if we’re the ones needing to act, often we are impatient about a person or situation that is beyond our control. That’s when it can lead to frustration or anger.
Impatience, stress and the brain
When impatience turns to frustration or anger, this is a good sign that stress is kicking into higher gear.
With higher stress comes higher levels of certain hormones and neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine and norepenephrine) that neuroscience studies show have a couple of effects on the brain:
(1) impairing the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of our brain most responsible for high-level thinking, empathy and impulse control; and
(2) 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 this post.)
So, in effect, when impatience reaches this higher level of stress, we are likely to lose our self-control, as well as empathy and understanding of the other(s) we might be feeling impatient towards.
And patience can be even more difficult to practice in times like this pandemic when stress can become chronic, as chronic stress can actually begin to damage nerves in the PFC which is needed for self-control.
In addition, the intense feelings that often accompany impatience can actually make time slow down for us.
When we’re feeling intense emotions such as anxiety, fear or anger, studies show that 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.
6 tips for taming impatience – and your brain
Don’t worry – all is not lost! Now that you know why you might be feeling more impatient these days, you can start to do something about it.
Because our brains have neuroplasticity, we can change them and build stronger neural connections for patience with effort and attention.
Here are 6 steps to get back to your prefrontal cortex and tame the impatience:
- Pause and label. Simply pausing to notice and label your impatience and other associated feelings has the power to calm the amygdala and activate the prefrontal cortex. If we can label negative feelings, research shows that this actually helps to de-activate the amygdala and activate the prefrontal cortex (For more on working with “bad” feelings, click here.)
- Breathe. The breath has the power to affect neural activity in the brain, particularly the cortex which includes the prefrontal cortex, and the limbic area which includes the amygdala. Try some slow, deep breaths and see for yourself the power it has to calm the nervous system. From there, you can slow down and choose a different response (or no response at all.)
- Imagine. After a pause and a breath, try imagining the outcome of acting or not acting on your impatience. Neuroscience research shows a link between patience and imagination in the brain, and simply imagining an outcome can boost your self-control.
- Control. Decide what is within your control. If you truly have no control over an outcome, focus instead on your attitude. Some research shows that believing we have control over something, even if we don’t, can improve our response to a stressful situation. If an outcome is beyond your control, try choosing a more positive mindset, such as #5 and #6.
- 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. Accessing compassion, both for others and for oneself, can actually boost self-control. Plus it activates the prefrontal cortex.
- Gratitude. Find something for which you are grateful. 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.
So have no fear. With practice, both your patience and your neural connections will grow!
Photo by Concha Rodrigo on Unsplash