An innocent question leads to raised voices. A trivial annoyance triggers an angry outburst. An offhand comments gets a snippy response. There’s no surer sign of high-stress levels than a short fuse. With the busy holiday and end-of-year season upon us, there will be plenty of opportunities for tempers to flare. The key to staying cool and calm in the face of crowded malls, looming deadlines, and grouchy family members? Patience.
To strengthen our patience and lengthen our fuse, says NYC-based psychotherapist Mark O’Connell, we have to address both the symptom and the underlying cause of a quick temper by practicing being present. Like resilience, patience is something that can be learned. “Patience is the muscle we build when we work toward being present,” O’Connell says. “Rather than thinking of patience as something we either have or don’t, think of yourself in a continuous process of finding the present moment.”
Here’s how to do just that:
Step 1: Treat the symptom
Do no harm. One of the biggest fallouts of a short fuse is the lasting damage it can do to anyone within striking distance. If a situation has you so upset that you’re at risk of saying something you don’t mean, take a time-out (even if it’s just using the bathroom or grabbing a coffee). Changing the scene, getting outside, and gaining some perspective can help you cool down before things get too hot.
Make a connection. While there are times when you can and should remove yourself from a situation, sometimes the key to defusing heightened tension is to share the moment with another person.
The next time something goes wrong, take a deep breath. If you need a time-out, take one—then, when you’re ready, seek out a moment of quiet human connection. When your plane is delayed (again), make eye contact with a fellow passenger and share a sigh or a roll of the eyes. When your team receives unanticipated news, look into your colleague’s eyes. Depending on the situation, you may decide to ask them how they’re doing (and take the focus off yourself), or make a light joke to relieve the pressure and restore morale.
Step 2: Treat the cause
Make time to slow down. Build up your patience by making time for moments of self-care with a clear start and finish line—each and every day. “When we think of this practice as a way of life as opposed to just a tool to manage our stress, we can lengthen our fuse over time,” O’Connell says.
Give yourself permission to commit to a mindful moment—a walk, a meditation break, a few deep breaths, lunch somewhere besides your desk—before you tackle the next problem. “When you can train yourself to be where you are now,” he says, “you’re training your brain to be calm and clear in the moment of stress.
Take small losses in stride. Nothing lights a short fuse like a when things don’t go your way and you lose something (time, missed opportunity) as a result. “Part of being present means practicing the experience of loss,” says O’Connell. “When we accept loss as a part of life, and practice living through the experience of that loss, we can accept this experience as part of life.”
This not only prepares us to tolerate feelings of loss without losing our temper, but also increases our capacity for creative problem solving and connection with others.
Be in three places at once. When you hear about the mindfulness concept of “being present,” you may think that means you should tune out all thoughts of the future or past. But O’Connell says that tuning in to the present doesn’t mean you need to have tunnel vision. After all, every moment in the here and now came from somewhere and is headed somewhere, too.
He suggests this: Invite your thoughts of the future and past into your practice of being present. No matter what you’re doing—walking the dog, doing the dishes, filing some paperwork—allow your mind to go where it wants. “Maybe you have an upcoming deadline that you’re dreading,” he says. “Let that thought come in, and then imagine being in the future looking back on the finished task. What would the ‘future you’ want you to feel right now—worried and anxious? Or alive in the moment? What would your younger self hope for you to feel right now? Would they want you to be crippled with worry?” This can bring some grounding and much-needed perspective.
Learning to widen your perspective, embrace everyday losses, and be present to whatever moment you’re in can help you lengthen and strengthen patience—with the world and with yourself.
Terri Trespicio is a New York–based lifestyle writer. For nearly a decade, she served as a senior editor and radio host at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, Prevention, MindBodyGreen, and DailyWorth. Find her on Twitter @TerriT