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When the elevator’s running slow, you clench your teeth and curse under your breath. If you still haven’t received your latte or a restaurant table, you snap at the barista or hostess and demand to know why it’s taking so long.
Everyone has those moments where they run short on the ability to stay calm in the face of frustration, adversity or suffering, also known as patience.
“We have expectations of what should be and what is an appropriate time to wait in line, or how quickly I should be able to get somewhere, or how someone else should act or how I should feel,” said Sarah Schnitker, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, and author of the 2012 study “An examination of patience and well-being.”
“When those expectations are violated, oftentimes that’s when our emotions become dysregulated,” Schnitker said.
Impatience isn’t always bad, but people who are chronically impatient can experience more stress, which increases their risk of health problems such as cardiovascular issues, Schnitker said.
Some people are more patient than others, but we’re not “doomed to whatever kind of natural setpoint of patience we have,” Schnitker told CNN. “With intentional practices, we can cultivate our patience, and make it easier for ourselves to wait.”
Here are some of Schnitker’s recommendations for developing more patience.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
CNN: When you’re impatient, what’s happening in your brain and the rest of your body?
Sarah Schnitker: Your emotions become activated. When this happens, it’s kind of a whole-body response. Our heart rate may increase. The amount of electricity coming off our skin (called skin conductance) might change. It also depends on what emotion might be occurring. Anxiety over missing your next meeting if something doesn’t happen in time might be a little different from impatience that’s more driven by anger. But with all these things, your physiological system is aroused and starts to enter a stress response – a fight-or-flight type of arousal.
Sometimes impatience helps us focus our attention and prepares us for action. But when it’s a situation that you can’t control or there isn’t a lot you can do, changing your own emotions is the option you have – basically down-regulating them and bringing yourself back to a state of calm.
CNN: How can people become more patient?
Schnitker: Cognitive reappraisal – where you think about the situation from a new perspective – or benefit findings – asking yourself what positives can come from this negative situation – can help you wait in the moment and can also help you build patience long term. Also, becoming aware of emotions and really identifying what you’re feeling and why can help.
Another step I like to talk about is connecting your suffering, waiting or trouble with your bigger purpose or life goals. Is there meaning in what you’re going through? How can you tap into that meaning as a resource to help you cope with this negativity in the moment? We’ve done studies looking at the virtue of patience in psychiatric inpatients hospitalized for suicide risk or other psychiatric disorders. We found even among that population, those who were more patient were able to deal with crises more effectively. They also see a decrease in depression symptoms. It’s something that even in acute instances of suffering, patience can help with a person’s recovery.
Practicing patience might be hard in the heat of the moment. Imagine you’re dealing with your child who’s having a tantrum, waiting to hear breast biopsy results or stuck in traffic before a really important meeting – you can try to use these tips in the moment. But for creating habits, what research suggests is effective is practicing these strategies during times that aren’t quite as stressful, or more minor things throughout the day. Try to be patient when the elevator comes too slowly. That way, you’ve got some skills built up by the time you get to a more high-stakes situation.
Talking about your efforts with others can be really helpful. It’s better to train rather than try. Regularly practicing meditation or just being more mindful are also correlated with higher patience.
You can also build your patience by increasing your emotional fluency, which is the ability to recognize and name your emotions. Emotional fluency makes it easier to reappraise situations when you’re in the moment or afterward. If you change the way you think, that changes how you feel – but first you need to know what you feel.
CNN: How can people improve their patience in relationships?
Schnitker: The basic steps will be the same; the advice would just be a slightly different flavor. What’s helpful is knowing what your goals and purposes are for the relationship. For example, “As a parent, I want to help this young person develop into a thriving adult. I want them to be kind and generous.”
Thinking about what you’re trying to teach them long term can help you in the moment – saying, “OK, this is part of teaching discipline and self-control, and helping them become an adult who is kind and contributes to society. There’s some meaning why I’m putting up with the screaming and using positive parenting practices.”
In the context of a romantic relationship or marriage, consider what it is you’re building instead of just focusing on the negative instances. Fill up the positive side that motivates you to stick with your patience during struggles.
CNN: Are there other benefits of becoming more patient?
Schnitker: People who have higher patience tend to have more empathy. Being able to consider others’ perspectives and think about the needs of others, not just yourself, will often help – especially in these one-off waiting situations when you’re stuck in line. There are other people involved who might be having hard days.
Research shows that people who are more patient have higher well-being – more life satisfaction, hope, self-esteem, positive emotions in general. They seem to be able to pursue their goals with greater effort and have more satisfaction with their goal progress. Patients with higher patience tend to have fewer health symptoms such as headaches, ulcers, diarrhea and more.
CNN: How long can developing better patience take?
Schnitker: It takes a lot of patience to develop patience. With habits, there’s a lot of variability – it can take anywhere from 20 days to almost a year to develop a habit. With patience, we have seen that people improve with minimal (time with mental health experts) – such as a weekly, half-hour-long intervention over four weeks. It’s not going to take forever. But we’re talking about gradients – it’s not like there’s just patient or impatient. It’s this continuum. But as people try to be more patient, they often see initial gains.
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You also have to be patient with yourself. Be compassionate and kind toward your own development, and know that this isn’t something you can change overnight. It can be cultivated, but it’s not a quick fix.