You know the feeling. When your streaming video is buffering or when someone is walking infuriatingly slow in front of you. When you’re stuck in a sluggish meeting at work or a seemingly never-ending line at the coffee shop. You can feel your body getting tense. You clench your jaw or huff and puff. Maybe you might lose your cool. Sound familiar?
Look, we’re all impatient at times. But losing control of our patience rarely, if ever, helps the situation. It hurts not only us, but those around us. It raises our stress level and can even cause physical harm to our bodies. Patience—your ability to keep calm in the face of disappointment or distress—is a life skill worth cultivating. It’s not only a noble virtue, but it’s been scientifically proven to reduce depression and other negative emotions. What’s more, another study found that patience as a personality trait is modifiable. That means you aren’t doomed to be impatient for the rest of your life. You can regain your cool. Here’s how.
Identify Your Triggers
According to MJ Ryan, author of The Power of Patience, impatience is the “fight” component of our primal fight-or-flight response. That’s why we react to irritating situations as if these encounters were more dire than they actually are. And this is why it’s up to us to recognize which situations set us off—slow drivers, long lines or technological interruptions—in order to take control of those situations and prevent any future irritation.
Stop Imagining the Ideal
Much of our impatience stems from feeling caught in a situation that we imagined would be different. You’re running a little late for work, and then you get stuck in traffic. The experience becomes more frustrating because you were imagining dashing through empty streets and getting there just in time. Brené Brown, the author and research professor who’s given some of the most-viewed talks on TED.com, suggests talking to yourself as a self-compassion practice. “To avoid getting antsy when I am writing and can’t find specific words for my thoughts, I tell myself that I’m not going to quit even if I become frustrated,” she says. “I’ll say out loud, ‘You’re not perfect … writing can be a messy process, and it’s not ideal, but you can handle it.'”
Take deep, slow breaths—in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Count to 10 as you do this exercise. Just the act of breathing deeply with intention can help slow your heart rate, relax the tension in your jaw and muscles, and distances you emotionally from the situation causing your stress. If you’re feeling really impatient, you might need to do a longer count, or repeat this several times.
Embrace the Lesson
Often what tests our patience are those situations where we don’t feel like we have control. Since you can’t change the situation, embrace it as a lesson. Pain often has its purposes. It pushes us to find solutions or recognize something we would’ve otherwise overlooked. Stuck in line? Utilize the time to let your mind wander and just people watch. Sarah A. Schnitker, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, suggests using a powerful technique called cognitive reappraisal, which means thinking about a situation differently. After all, you can’t make people move faster but you can change how you view the situation.