THE NO-NONSENSE GUIDE TO THE ART OF PATIENCE
Take a deep breath. You’ve got this!
Patience and parents: these two words share an astonishing five letters. A coincidence? We don’t think so! Now, we know that your patience skills are probably already bordering on the superhuman – you’re a mum, after all. But we haven’t met a mum yet who doesn’t feel she could do with just a little bit more. And guess what? It’s possible! “There’s a growing body of research from neuroscience and social psychology that gives us insights into how to cultivate patience,” says psychologist Dr Christopher Willard. “Patience is really like a muscle in the brain. And, just like a muscle, your patience can be weakened by factors such as sleep
deprivation.” Sound familiar? But there’s good news, too: “Again, like muscle, we are likely wired to have a certain amount of patience,” says Christopher. “But this can change a lot, depending on how much we “work out” our patience muscle to build it up and make it stronger and longer lasting.”
Give yourself a break
Whether it’s nappy changing or night feeds, being a mum involves speeding up the learning curve to master lots of new tasks you’ve never encountered before. “And the fact that you’ve never practised these tasks before means you have yet to build your “patience muscle” for them,” says Christopher. Those everyday jobs never stay the same for long either – changing an independent toddler’s nappy is a whole different ball game to a newborn’s! – so it’s tricky for your patience muscle to keep up with the pace of change. So, give yourself a break if you feel you don’t currently have quite as much patience as you’d like. It’s normal – and we’re going to show you some smart ways to strengthen that patience muscle right now.
Use your imagination
By examining MRI scans of the brain to watch this ‘patience muscle’ in action, neuroscientists have discovered that simply stopping to imagine the outcome of your actions before pursuing an impulse can increase your ability to exercise patience. So, the next time your toddler is refusing to put on his coat, despite the Arctic wind that’s blowing, and despite the fact you’ve already calmly asked him three times, try it. When you’re feeling like you’re ready to snap, take a moment to think what impact that might have. Do you see your youngster calming down and putting his coat on as a consequence? Or will his insistence magnify? You don’t need to do anything other than take a few seconds to think about the outcome of your action. Now, we’re not suggesting you won’t still feel frustrated, and you’ll still be left with the issue of how you’re going to persuade your toddler to put his coat on, but the process of simply imagining the outcome will build your patience muscle fast. “We call it ‘elaborative rehearsal’,” explains Christopher, “and studies show it has a real, structural effect on one of the areas in our brains most closely associated with patience.”
Breathe a bit more
No one’s got time to do 10 minutes of meditation when their schedule is already packed with Tumble Tots, coffee dates, work schedules and nursery. But this technique takes moments, and brings a super-boost of patience almost instantly: “Breathe in for the count of seven, then out for the count of eleven,” says Christopher. “And as you breathe deeply and slowly, focus on something. Anything will do – your feet, for example, are always there! Focus on the feeling of them on the floor. Do they feel warm or cold? Do your shoes feel tight or loose? It’s so easy, but this technique will result in real changes to the parts of your brain associated with patience.” So how does it work? Well, when you’re feeling stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released into your body. “This interrupts your ability to think straight,” explains Christopher. This surge also blocks the release of oxytocin, the love hormone that promotes bonding between you and your tot. “So it’s practically neurologically impossible to be stressed and loving at the same time,” says Christopher. So now you know what’s behind that frazzled feeling you get when you’ve nearly reached your limits and you’re not behaving like the mum you really want to be! “Research shows that practising techniques such as this, that bring
you into the present moment, actively builds your patience,” Christopher explains. One study found that regular mindfulness practice can lower cortisol levels by up to 15 per cent – so, if in doubt, breathe.
Did anyone ever tell you to count to 10 when you were a child and struggling to keep your emotions in hand? Well, science has now proved that this old trick actually works. Research has revealed that simply waiting for a few seconds before you choose between two courses of action strengthens your patience muscle. Plus, it often leads to you choosing the option with better long-term consequences. The reason this works, the study’s authors suggest, is that this pause lets us watch our own emotions and reactions, and learn from them. So, before you even open your mouth, get into the habit of just counting to 10. “It’s one of the easiest ways to cultivate patience,” says Christopher. “You’re exercising that ‘patience muscle’ in your brain, and by the time you’re done, you’re far less likely to be stuck in an emotionally reactive state, and far more likely to be able to react to whatever’s frustrated you in a calm, compassionate, clear-headed and patient way.”
Appreciate what you’ve got
Despite what Instagram would have us believe, none of us feel #blessed all the time. But research suggests that feeling grateful can significantly reduce levels of impatience. The study found that when asked to choose between an immediate cash reward or a much larger one in a year’s time, less grateful people tended to cave and choose the former. It was the more grateful people who had the patience to wait and receive a larger reward. Now, no one’s going to be paying you for your perfect parenting anytime soon! “But,” says Christopher, “remembering a moment when your youngster made you feel profoundly happy can change your current emotional experience.” So try this: next time you feel your patience fraying, cast your mind back to a moment when a cuddle with your little one made you feel complete, or perhaps a point in your pregnancy when you were supremely content. You may well find your gratitude outweighs your frustration at this small and passing situation.
Hug it out
Countless studies attest to the de-stressing power of hugs. During that moment of closeness, oxytocin is released into your body, lowering blood pressure, and anxiety levels, and shutting down the flow of cortisol to relieve your feelings of stress. “So, if emotions are running high and you and your child are at a point where you can’t express feelings well in words, this physical gesture can be the best form of communication,” says Christopher. The great thing about all of this is that, the more you use your patience muscle, the stronger it will grow. Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll all have more than enough one day!