The Frustration of Waiting

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

One of the most frustrating of experiences is having to wait. We wait to get to the cash register. We wait in traffic jams. We wait for trains, buses and at the airport. We wait at the doctor’s office. We wait at the motor vehicle bureau. We wait, and wait and wait. Many people lose their patience, become bored, anxious and angry. Have you noticed that some lines seem to go more quickly than others? Logic demands that some lines are slow while others are fast. Depending on your mood, it can feel as though the fast lines take more time than the slow lines. However, this may not always be true.

The amount of time that passes while waiting is often a matter of perception. For example, most of us expect a long wait at the motor vehicle bureau. It’s not a pleasant expectation but, at least, we know it in advance and are not surprised. By contrast, there is the type of situation my wife and I once experienced. We were unprepared for a long wait to disembark from a cruise ship. We knew it takes some time to empty a ship of its passengers but not so long that we become frustrated. The long delay was a surprise for us and our fellow passengers. All of us wanted to return home after a long vacation.


One of the factors that can make a wait feel endless is awareness of time. A minute can feel like a second or like twenty four hours. It is in the latter case that boredom sets in. I knew of a family physicain who complained to me about some patients who arrived an hour early for their appointments. That might not have been a problem except for the fact that they would complain about the long wait!! Most often, these were older adults who had little else to do with their time.

In case you think that waiting is not a matter of perception and expectation, think about this example. A couple goes to a restaurant and discovers that it’s very crowded and has a waiting list. They put their names on the list and ask how long the wait will be. They are told that it would be thirty minutes but they can have a drink at the bar. Ten minutes later, they are called to their table. “Wow, that was really fast,” they tell each other while smiling broadly.

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Here is another example of the perception of time. Mom and dad take their children to visit the top floor of the Empire State Building.  When they were taken by their own parents, both the lines and wait time were shorter. Now the lines and waiting time seem much longer. In other words, childhood experience caused the expectation of a short wait time, not the endless wait it now has become.

However, when the family takes their children to Disney World, they were warned to expect long waits at the displays and rides. In this case, both mom, dad and children wait contentedly for each event.

If waiting is partly a matter of perception, what can you do to make the time go faster? There is no simple answer to this question because circumstances vary from one situation to the next. Therefore, it is difficult to be prepared for each. However, here are some strategies that might work for you and that do work for me:

1. If you know from past experience that there is likely to be a waiting period at the doctor’s or dentist’s office, bring a book or ipad to keep you busy. This type of distraction helps keep you occupied and you are less likely to feel bored and restless.

2. In a traffic jam or other such inconvenient and unexpected wait, listen to music or the news while keeping an eye on the road. Several times I had the experience of the expressway being so jammed that people got out of their cars and chatted and joked with one another.

3. Many people find it helpful, while waiting on a slow moving line at the pharmacy or bank, to talk with one another, much like on the jammed expressway. Humor is often a way for people to blow off steam while waiting.

4. Doing some deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises, (these can be done without attracting attention), can relieve lots of stress and improve self control when in these situations.

What you should not do is become enraged. That will not speed the wait time and will only result in raised blood pressure, ulcers and, ultimately, heart disease.

Your comments and experiences are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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