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Mind Body and Soul: In Pursuit of Patience

In Pursuit of Patience:

Cultivating Composure in a Right-Now World

By Michelle Vessel

Instant downloads. Online streaming. Paying with a wave of your phone. Getting groceries or takeout delivered with the click of an app. Communicating by way of emoji-laden texts, often in as few actual words as possible. In the hyper-paced, technology-centric world we’re living in, the concept of waiting has pretty much gone by the wayside, taking the need to be patient right along with it.

More Than a Virtue

While that old adage about patience still applies, what you might not know is that its flipside, impatience, has been linked in recent research with a truly staggering array of negative health conditions and life outcomes. Having a short fuse can quite literally kill you, whether by exacerbating health problems like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, premature aging and decline, substance abuse, stroke risk and obesity, or by prompting you to make dangerous decisions, such as veering into oncoming traffic in a no-passing zone to get around a slow-moving car. Impatience is also correlated with fewer friendships, financial problems and chronic procrastination. 

So what can you do if you happen to be the high-strung type? Patience (or lack thereof) is an inborn personality trait, right? Either you’re blessed with it at birth or you’re out of luck. Actually, there are decades’ worth of research indicating that this is a widespread misconception. Although it is true that some people are naturally calmer and more even-tempered than others, patience can also be seen as a skill that can be developed and enhanced over time using a number of different techniques and practices.

Practice Makes Patience

In one recent research project conducted by Dr. Sarah Schnitker, a neuroscientist at Baylor University, the study participants took part in a training program designed to increase patience. The results? At the end of the program, the participants displayed increased patience, decreased depression, and overall increased levels of happiness. What’s more, other studies have shown that those who successfully improve their patience levels also show heightened levels of other positive emotions, such as empathy and compassion.

Sounds great! Where do I sign up? According to Dr. Schnitker, the most important thing to remember is that you can’t just suddenly decide to be a more patient person and instantly see results. Instead, the way she and her colleagues were able to help people become more patient was to frame the process as a kind of structured training regimen, like one you might undertake if you decided to build up your stamina to run a 5K race.

Culled from the work of Dr. Schnitker and other experts working on similar research, here’s a five-step plan for becoming a more patient person and reaping all of the mental and physical benefits that come with calmness and composure.

  1. Pinpoint your impatience triggers.

Even the most tolerant and stoic among us have pet peeves that set us off. The first step in cultivating patience is to take an inventory of the situations, people, places and things that are most likely to push you into a simmering state of annoyance. It’s impossible to rearrange your life to eliminate every inconvenient thing imaginable, but sometimes we plunge ourselves into irritating scenarios unnecessarily. Once you’ve decided to try to develop more patience, look at your lifestyle through a different lens and try to remove as many stressors as possible, even if that just entails minor changes like taking a different route to work or waking the kids up 15 minutes earlier to ease the before-school craziness. For those unavoidable situations that are impatience triggers, identifying them in advance can help you prepare yourself mentally beforehand so you can face them down with a calmer mindset.

  1. Learn to sit comfortably with impatience.

Think about a time recently when you were overcome with impatience. What were the physical sensations you experienced? How did you feel emotionally? How did you react? What could you have done differently to defuse the situation? The next time you find yourself in an annoying situation and you start to experience the physical sensations of impatience, force yourself to focus on the symptoms and think about why you’re feeling this way. What specifically is leading you to feel stressed out? Then take a few deep breaths and think about something pleasant or a future event you’re looking forward to. According to Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, this shift to analytical thinking short-circuits your inner caveman’s often wildly disproportionate “fight-or-flight” response to something like being stuck in a slow-moving checkout line.

  1. Tell yourself a different story.

Baylor neuroscientist Dr. Schnitker is a proponent of the technique known as cognitive reappraisal, which essentially just means looking at the stressful situation in a different light. Once you’ve identified the physical and emotional symptoms of impatience and interrupted them, you can boost your calmness even further by adding some much-needed perspective to the situation. How does being more patient connect to your overall values? Do you want to be the type of person who snaps at a teenage store clerk who made a simple mistake, or the type of person who reacts to adversity with poise and grace? The key is that impatience is all about focusing solely on the moment, whereas patience depends on your ability to mentally extract yourself from fleeting annoyances.

  1. Celebrate your progress.

In keeping with the metaphor of training for a 5K, it’s important to track your development as you steadily improve your patience. If you exhibit patience in a situation that typically would have set you off, congratulate yourself! Consider keeping a “patience journal” akin to a gratitude journal, in which you track your progress each day and list a few calm responses that you’re proud of. Pick a few small treats, like a bubble bath or a self-care spa blitz, that you reserve for particularly proud moments on your patience journey. This can be a particularly powerful tool in helping your brain to lock in the patience habit.  

  1. Zoom out and take steps to help yourself be more patient.

In addition to minor changes to your daily schedule and habits to help you be more patient, consider making some larger-scale lifestyle swaps as well. Factors such as eating well, getting enough rest, keeping alcohol and caffeine use moderate, and exercising regularly are all part of the big picture when it comes to cultivating patience. One of the most helpful lifestyle changes researchers associate with improved patience is having a regular yoga or meditation practice, both of which promote the type of mindfulness that is really at the heart of the concept of patience. Finally, try not to bite off more than you can chew. If you try to cram more than you can reasonably accomplish into your daily schedule, you’re setting yourself up for inevitable defeat.

There’s no way to totally eradicate petty annoyances from your life. But with just a little practice and perseverance, you can completely alter the way your brain processes and reacts to these inevitable frustrations– and reap the physical and emotional benefits of more patience at the same time.

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