I'm a nice person. I donate to food drives, buy cookies from Scouts, hold doors open for strangers. But when I'm in a hurry, look out: One minute I'm as tranquil as Buddha, and the next I'm giving the finger to the chick in the minivan who has the nerve to drive the speed limit in a no-passing zone.

Too many of us, when rushed, do some pretty dangerous and destructive things. We floor it through yellow lights, snap at dawdling children, bark at busy receptionists and swear when we have to wait 90 seconds at a drive-thru. And no way are we going to patiently wait our turn to use a popular new machine at the gym.

Impatience is no mere harmless idiosyncrasy. It takes a toll on our mental and physical health and on our relationships with those closest to us. It contributes to an ever-increasing incivility in society and can even make us dangerous to ourselves and the world around us. Luckily, though, even the most impatient person can learn how to cool her heels.

Is what you expect unreasonable?

Why do we allow ourselves to get so ruffled -- and, sometimes, to risk our and others' lives -- just to save a few seconds? "Impatience comes from having unreasonable expectations," says Catherine Chambliss, Ph.D., chairwoman of the psychology department at Ursinus College in the Philadelphia area. In other words, we get impatient when we allow only 10 minutes for the 15-minute drive across town, or because we expect the dentist to be on time even though he's always, always behind schedule.

Ironically, timesaving devices -- fax machines, instant messaging and cellphones -- deserve part of the blame. "The e-mail mentality feeds impatience because it gets us accustomed to immediate responses," Chambliss says. "It has fueled rising expectations for speed and productivity."

The toll impatience takes

Impatience can harm your physical, mental and spiritual health. Say you're stuck in a molasses-slow line at the shop where you grab your morning coffee before work. As time ticks by and you grow more and more annoyed, your body's fight-or-flight reaction begins to kick in. Your stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate skyrocket, and your brain may release endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. That won't hurt you if you're impatient only occasionally, but if you're chronically on edge, you could be in for trouble, warns Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., director of Women's Health Services at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Division of Behavioral Medicine, Harvard Medical School.

Stress hormones can eventually reduce your immune system's ability to fight disease; constant surges in blood pressure can damage blood vessels; and frequent demand for endorphins can actually deplete them temporarily, so they are not available to fight the pain of migraine headaches, backaches and other ailments.

Impatience can damage your relationships, too. "It really gets in the way of love," says Joseph Bailey, M.A., a psychologist and author of The Speed Trap: How to Avoid the Frenzy of the Fast Lane (Harper, 1999). "When you get impatient, you become irritated and judgmental, and that creates distance between you and the other person." Children are particularly vulnerable. An impatient parent can make a child feel self-conscious and insecure, Bailey says.

Even our spirituality can be sapped by impatience. As we speed through traffic or elbow our way angrily through a crowded mall, we're thinking about the future -- getting to the next appointment, crossing the next item off a to-do list -- rather than being mindful of the joy and spirituality of the present moment.

Be here now

The solution is mindfulness, a practice that is embraced by just about every religion and sacred tradition and that's crucial for spiritual growth. "Mindfulness centers your mind in the present, rather than letting it wander to the hopes of the future or the regrets of the past," Domar explains. "Being mindful means appreciating what you have rather than longing for what you don't have."

If you're impatient, chances are your family was too -- the trait seems to be both inherited and learned. But you don't have to spend the rest of your life tapping your foot. Here are some experts' suggestions for taming impatience.

1. Leave enough time to do what you need to do. You're most likely to become impatient when you're running late. "If I'm not in a hurry on the freeway and someone wants to change lanes in front of me, it doesn't bother me a bit," says Fred L. Miller, a personal and corporate coach and author of How to Calm Down Even If You're Absolutely, Totally Nuts (Namaste Press, 1999). "But if I'm late for work and someone cuts me off, fight-or-flight takes over."

2. Remember Murphy's Law. If something can go wrong, it will -- especially when technology is involved. This means that if you are planning to e-mail a report to your boss five minutes before you leave for the day, the server will inevitably be down and you will have to wait an hour to send it -- and then rush like crazy to get to your Pilates class on time. "We get incredibly frustrated because we have readjusted our expectations based on the assumption that technology will always be there and functional, but it often isn't," says psychologist Catherine Chambliss.

3. Accept that some things are out of your control. If you find yourself waiting for the same chronically late person time and time again, have a talk with her; she may be unaware of her behavior. If that doesn't work, just plan on her always being late and adjust your schedule accordingly. That way, you won't be frustrated and impatient, and if she's actually on time, she can wait for a change.

4. Put your actions in perspective. The next time you're tempted to blow through a yellow traffic light, think about what you're risking just to save a few seconds. Stepping back and putting your actions into perspective can make obvious to you how dangerous impatience can be.

5. Take a breather. When impatience starts to surge, take three deep breaths to calm yourself. "This is a basic relaxation technique that you can do with your eyes open and while gripping the steering wheel," Miller says.

6. Talk to yourself. Instead of yelling at the driver who cut you off, use self-talk, recommend psychologists Matthew McKay, Ph.D., and Peter Rogers, Ph.D., co-authors of The Anger Control Workbook (New Harbinger Publications, 2000). Tell yourself things like "Just stay cool; getting pissed off won't help" and "This is just not worth getting upset about."

7. Use a talisman. In your pocket, keep something -- a small stone, a string of beads -- that serves as a physical reminder of your desire to be patient. When you feel impatience bubbling up, touch your talisman.

8. Take a sensory vacation. During calm moments, close your eyes and use sensory memory to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, smells and feel of a beautiful place -- a mountain peak, a sunny beach, a cool forest. Then, in impatience-inducing situations, close your eyes and return to that peaceful place in your mind.

9. Count your blessings. Taking stock of all of the good things in your life -- and saying a prayer of thankfulness for them -- can calm and refresh you while putting a wait into perspective.

10. Accept the inevitability of waiting. Like it or not, the world is full of overbooked doctors, crowded highways and slow sales clerks. Accept it. Get over it.

6 ways to wait better

Sometimes you can't avoid waiting, but you can make it more palatable. "How you choose to wait can determine whether or not frustrating situations have an adverse affect on your health," says Catherine Chambliss, Ph.D., chairwoman of the psychology department at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. "Planning constructive things to do while waiting is vital." Here are some patience-boosting activities that can help whittle away waiting time:

Catch up on chores Pay a stack of bills, write a slew of thank-you notes, make to-do or shopping lists.

Pack a book The 45-minute wait in the gynecologist's office will go by much faster if you're engrossed in a great new novel rather than stuck with four-year-old issues of National Geographic.

Knit or crochet These crafting activities can be immensely satisfying and relaxing. Plus, you'll have handmade sweaters, scarves and blankets to show for your waiting time.

Write to yourself and others Keep a journal of your hopes and dreams. Drop a note to a friend you haven't seen in a year or the aunt who just got out of the hospital.

Listen and learn "If you're sitting in traffic listening to fabulous music, the waiting isn't going to be toxic to you," Chambliss says. "But if you instead choose to rehearse all your animosities and your fury at the establishment for not building better roads and your anger at selfish drivers, then over the long haul it's going to have very deleterious consequences." You can also use the time to "read" books or learn a foreign language on tape.

Meditate You can do this anywhere: Just sit comfortably, close your eyes, focus on your breathing and let go of your thoughts. If it helps, silently repeat a word or phrase.