Waiting Is the Hardest Part

A neuroscience lesson in patience

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
4 min readJan 19, 2021

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Credit: Paolo Carnassale/Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

I feel like we’ve all been doing a lot of… waiting recently. First, we were waiting for a vaccine to be approved; now we’re waiting for our place in line. We’re waiting for the pandemic to finally end (please God let it end). And we’re waiting, apprehensively, to see what unfolds at the presidential inauguration tomorrow. A lot of big things are happening in the world right now, but for many of us the only thing we can do is be patient and see how they turn out.

Your brain, waiting (im)patiently

According to psychologist Sarah Schnitker, there are three kinds of patience: interpersonal patience (having patience with other people), daily hassle patience (suffering through slow internet), and life hardship patience (being able to wait out tough times — like right now).

In her research, Schnitker has found that having more patience is linked to greater feelings of well-being, better coping skills, lower levels of depression, and fewer health problems. “Patience directly influences hedonic well-being as it buffers against emotions in stressful situations, allows the person to cope more adaptively with frustrations, and facilitates positive interpersonal interactions,” she writes.

In psychology speak, patience is known as both a “state” and a “trait” characteristic. People have their normal baseline levels of patience (trait), and different situations affect people’s patience in the moment (state). Both of these can be influenced through training or external factors. In other words, yes, you can become a more patient person.

When it comes to trait patience, research has shown that guided meditations, self-reflections, and reframing exercises can increase people’s levels of interpersonal patience. The exercises in the study were intended to raise people’s awareness about when and why their negative emotions arise; improve their coping skills in frustrating scenarios and for stress in general; and…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental