The Surprising Power of Waiting

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 · 7 Comments

Woman waiting on bench

For most people waiting feels like a waste of time and we’re often inclined to want to fill that time with something… anything. Whether we’re in line at the grocery story, waiting at a doctor’s office, or sitting at a stoplight, the brain seems to be cued to fill that space. Nowadays, many of us pull out our phones and begin sifting through messages, reading documents, or surfing the web.

However, the belief that waiting has no value is mistaken. In fact, one secret to a sense of personal control, general satisfaction with life, and even success, lies in learning how to find peace with waiting.

We’ve all heard the famous adages, “Patience is a virtue.” or “Good things come to those who wait.”

However, that’s easier said than done. Why?

Our brain’s natural response takes over.

Underneath the subtle (yet for many of us, intolerable) experience of waiting is an anxious little gremlin that fears being alone. This gremlin is operating on ancient programming that says if you’re alone you’re not being protected by your clan which is perceived a threat to your safety. In those small moments of waiting, the gremlin takes the controls of your brain and reaches for something to “be with” so you’re not alone anymore. In other words, the anxious gremlin is in control and you’re not.

Studies are clear that lacking a sense of control is associated with negative stress, anxiety, and depression. Also, the more we let the gremlin run our brain, the stronger it gets – or as the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb says, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Using Waiting for Good

What if you were to practice being on the lookout for moments of waiting in the day? What if, in those moments, instead of grabbing something to fill the space, you recognized it as an opportunity to be okay with just waiting? Part of the practice would involve softening the muscles in your body that have tensed due to a mini fight/flight/freeze response, allowing yourself to simply recognize you’re safe.

What we practice and repeat in life becomes more automatic. If you practice and repeat this, you’ll start taking back control of your mind and you’ll feel more at ease as a result.

There are so many opportunities to practice. You can do this while waiting for the bread to toast, waiting for someone to get out of the shower, waiting for a report at work, waiting for the screen to load, waiting on hold on the phone, and even waiting for your newborn to settle down when you’re doing your best as a parent to soothe your baby.

In these small moments of patience, you strengthen self-control, trust in yourself, and with less tension in needing to fill the spaces, you feel more relaxed in life.

You’ve freed yourself from this delusion of immediacy, grasping, and need, and opened up to a sense of ease, contentment, and confidence.

Try this very simple exercise today and in the days ahead. Consider where you might be waiting. As you notice the waiting, relax your body, recognize you’re safe, and just be curious about the experience of waiting.

In my experience, this is where the gold is.

Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy


  1. Sallie Gilman
    February 22, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    Thank you, Elisha.
    I found article this very helpful as a way to help me “relax” during my waiting times. I had never thought about the “mini flight or fight response” becoming activated, but I am acutely aware that it certainly happens to me during these what times I’m looking forward to trying this in the future.


  2. Debbie
    February 22, 2018 at 5:25 am

    Waiting waiting waiting. I have learned from the “littles” I teach. Wait time is the difference between creating telomeres of success with attention and reading. Creating wait time also has been a great teacher. Great reminder for the “bigKids” thanks Debbie

  3. Rita
    February 21, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks so much Elisha – I already practice quiet waiting – or use that time to do a little meditation on the senses. However I found your explanation of that need to connect to something / anything, wonderful. Now I can also me mindful of my little gremlin and send her loving kindness. thank you 🙂

    • Elisha Goldstein
      February 21, 2018 at 8:33 pm

      Wonderful Rita!

  4. Atul Mathur
    December 3, 2015 at 11:42 am

    A common experience is waiting at a traffic red light. Recently I have been practicing taking three deep breaths. What a difference! It is so relaxing. In fact, given a choice between a route with stop sign and the one with more red lights, I now choose the ones with red lights.

  5. December 2, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    “Be anxious for nothing” comes to mind as this article reminds me of the gift in waiting. This is especially important for me as I contemplate my next job (to pay the bills), as I grow my life purpose business, as I determine where I most want to live and make my next home. Thanks for the reminder that I have control over what my mind can do when it is in a state of acceptance.

    December 2, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I remember reading years ago “Stranger in a Strange Land” where the idea of “waiting is…” was an important concept.

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