Patience, they say, is a virtue. An elusive one, at that. In a world that caters to our every want and need and whim—and now—why wouldn't we turn red-faced and huffy when we're forced to wait a minute or two or 10? Why slow down when racing around does us just fine?
Turns out there are plenty of reasons. Patience, or the ability to tolerate waiting, delay, or frustration—without becoming agitated—boosts both our mental and physical health. When we lose it, our bodies release stress hormones, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Over time, that extra stress could also contribute to lower-back pain, tension headaches, menstrual problems, and even infertility. Plus, when we're impatient, "we tend to be more tired, more easily overwhelmed, and quicker to anger or be frustrated," says psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, who's based in New York. "If we can be more patient, we'll be healthier. We'll also stay calmer and more focused in our lives, which allows us to participate more fully in each experience we have. We enjoy life better when we're patient."
In addition to making us happier and healthier, patience encourages better decision making and problem solving. We can assess situations more thoroughly and weigh the pros and cons. It also helps us develop understanding, empathy, and compassion, which strengthens our relationships with others. "People can read impatience on our faces, and they react and become anxious," says clinical psychologist Melanie Greenberg, who's based in Mill Valley, Calif. "It doesn't bring out the best in them. And that goes for work relationships, intimate relationships—all of them."
Think you'll always tap your foot in annoyance when you're waiting in line? Not necessarily. Sure, some of us are more naturally inclined to tolerate traffic jams and never-ending waits. But patience is a skill we can all learn, so long as we're willing to put in some work. Try these expert-recommended strategies:
Pay attention to your triggers. Does your patience wane when you're baby-sitting your 3-year-old nephew? Waiting in line at Starbucks or the doctor's office? "The best thing we can do is be curious about our impatience," says psychologist Elisha Goldstein, author of The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life. "If we can name something and face it, we can overcome it." Spend a week or two keeping a patience journal, jotting down everything that causes you to lose yours. Once you're aware of what gets you worked up, you can anticipate those situations and take preventive steps to remain calm.
Meditate. You may not be able to do it amidst a trying situation—don't close your eyes or leave the outer world behind while you're in gridlock on the interstate. But experts suggesting adopting a once-a-day meditation routine. It can help you find a center of calm within yourself, and once you know how to reach that calm place, you can go there when your emotions start to flare. Meditation is a helpful way to remain content in the present, rather than anxiously anticipating the future or dwelling on the past.
Take an adult time out. When Jaime Cundy starts to feel impatient, her pulse races and skin tingles, and every muscle in her body contracts. She overcomes it by taking a time out. "We send our kids to the corner when they're being bad, but sometimes adults need to just take a second," says Cundy, a positive psychology practitioner in Alberta, Canada. "It could mean three deep breaths, listening to or singing a song, or just sitting down for a few minutes." Removing yourself from the situation will help you refocus and look at it more objectively, she says. During that mini-break, you can figure out a way to either remedy the roadblock, or realize that it's out of your control.
Slow down. Hartstein suggests making a conscious effort to walk and eat and even breathe more slowly. Identify one area of your life where you can afford to slow down, and do it. You'll likely notice a positive difference in how you feel, mentally and physically. "Life moves quickly," she says. "It's easy to internalize this speed into your daily life. But everything can wait five minutes."
Distract yourself. So you're standing in line at the DMV. For two hours. Dampen those negative feelings by playing a game on your iPhone , reading a chapter of a trashy romance novel, or squeezing in a call you've been meaning to make. "What can you do to refocus your energy?" Hartstein says. "Maybe this is a chance to think about the things you'd like to do later, or turn the frustration into something enjoyable. If you don't usually get time to flip through a magazine because you're busy, do that while you're in line."
[See How to Control Road Rage.]
Look at the bigger picture. Did that guy in the Volkswagen cut you off to deliberately tick you off? Is the barista taking a painstakingly long time because she has a vendetta against you? Probably not. Keep in mind that anyone who tries your patience could be in the midst of their own awful day—and not out to make things worse for you. "I was being a bit of a jerk when I was getting impatient and road raging," Cundy says. "I've realized that other people have things going on, too, and now I can take a second and empathize. Maybe their car is breaking down, and on top of that you're screaming at them on the road. Remember that other people have lives too, and your issues aren't at the center of that."
Expect the unexpected. Nothing will go your way all the time. Keep your expectations realistic, and realize that, sometimes, it's necessary to roll with whatever life tosses our way. Losing your patience won't make subpar situations any better. Flexibility and acceptance will.
Embrace it. "There's definitely a place for impatience," Cundy says. "You can't always sit there and be OK in the moment. Sometimes you do need to move things along." The trick is knowing how to recognize those situations. "It comes with practice and understanding where your impatience is coming from and why," Cundy says. "Then you can figure out how to act on it." If, for example, five people came into the sandwich shop after you, but were helped before you, no one will blame you for speaking up.
Be patient with your impatience. You're not going to change overnight. And that's OK: "You have to be patient as you learn patience," Hartstein says. "We tend to be an immediate gratification society, and want what we want when we want it, even when we're learning a new life skill. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. It's important to give yourself time to learn it, and accept the fact that it will be a challenge to learn."
And, good news: You've already made it through this story, which is a sign that there's patience within you. Congratulations!