Did you know that chronic stress causes physical changes in the size and activity of many of your brain structures? When they're swimming in the stress neurochemical cortisol, the prefrontal cortex (the CEO of the brain), and the hippocampus (houses long term memory) actually shrink in size.

Other parts, like the amygdala, swell when they're over-stimulated. The result is an overactive stress response and impaired memory and reduced ability to plan and act. Sound a little like you?

Is it comforting to know that there's a concrete physical cause for this experience? On the other hand, there's a downside to knowing that your thoughts are causing the shrinkage. Unless you do something about it, your brain will keep shrinking. Numerous studies have linked dementia with reduction in brain mass.

Neurologically speaking, worry is the emotional by-product of your amygdala activating the flight response. In my previous articles, you learned that the amygdala recalls scary past events. Here's the neurological cause for that distraction.

The two sides, or hemispheres, of your brain are separated by and communicate with each other via a bundle of neurons called the corpus callosum.

In each side of your brain, there are specific structures that process individual aspects of your experience: what you hear, smell, touch, feel, remember, and more. When the two sides of your brain communicate with each other, you coalesce these tiny pieces into a whole experience.

However, sometimes, information from the right hemisphere can't make it over to the left hemisphere (researchers are still trying to figure out why this happens). To account for this absence, the left hemisphere starts to look for stories.

This search is stressful, which spawns worry. Cue the amygdala! And the scary stories get rolling.

There are several steps along the stress response route where you can pause the old pattern of reaction and create a new way of responding to potentially stressful situations. Let's start with the first step in your stress response.

How you respond in any given situation begins with your appraisal of it. Your level of ongoing stress will dictate which aspects of the situation you focus on, and how strong a negative reaction you have to them. Most people have at least a low to moderate level of stress simmering all the time, which predisposes them to negative future appraisals.

In other words, your present level of stress, worry or anxiety becomes your amygdala's filter for your next experience. With every unexpected turn of events, your amygdala will focus on any threats you perceive: this situation is dangerous, difficult, painful or unfair.

In this mindset, there's only one possible type of outcome: negative. And you won't think you have the resources that would give you more, or better options.

Giving yourself more options is what researchers call flexible thinking. The more flexible you can be, the less stress you'll feel. When you're feeling stressed, flexibility feels impossible for two reasons.

First, since you're doubtful that things could go well, trying to think of more options only conjures up more negative outcomes. Not helpful.

Second, stress limits your ability to attend to all of the details about what's happening in this situation, so opportunities to get what you want won't even hit your radar.

When you choose opportunity over difficult (or dangerous), your amygdala sleeps. Worry and stress are avoided. You give yourself the option to experience the same situation as an opportunity to learn, grow, express yourself fully and engage with others. You can focus your thoughts on using your resources to make wise choices and influence events in a positive way.

Is Worry Destroying Your Self-Confidence?

You’ve known for years that mental preparation plays a major role in success. However, most of us don’t prepare powerfully.

In our society, there’s a pervasive false belief that it’s a sign of maturity and responsibility to worry about things. That it’s normal to get nervous when the stakes are high, like 10 minutes before you give a big presentation. Or when your teenager gets their driver’s license.

I’m making a case for the opposite.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that worrying is the adult version of a temper tantrum. It’s an acid that eats away at your confidence. The best way to handle it is to go sit in a corner with your nose against the wall until you can distract your amygdala, calm down, clear your mind and focus on evaluating your options for getting what you want.

Let’s connect the dots between your amygdala, worry, and your self-confidence.

When you’re not confident in your abilities and opinions, you’ll have varying levels of doubt that you’ll be able to get the outcome you want. Any time you have doubt, you’ll feel uncomfortable.

This discomfort will trigger your amygdala, which will hit the ‘play’ button for your file of fear-based thoughts. Have you ever noticed that, when you feel fear, you have the same kind of thoughts, over and over?

Regardless of the details of any particular situation, your thoughts will run along the lines of: this isn’t going to go well for me. I don’t know the right words to say or the right thing to do that will ensure that I’ll get what I want.

The most common theme is the fear of loss, usually due to rejection. Here are some examples of how it can play out.

• In personal relationships, the repeated fear is: you’ll leave me.
• At work, the fear is: you’ll fire me.
• With your body, the fear can be subtle: my body will get a debilitating disease. Which leads to the ultimate loss: untimely death.

Thus, your amygdala triggers worry any time your thinking is based on weak self-confidence.

You’re most confident when you’ve been in the same situation in the past and found a successful outcome. It’s those new, different situations that trigger the fear of being embarrassed and rejected.

And true to form, your amygdala will recall similar—though not identical—times you weren’t successful. The similarity between the two situations triggers fear of suffering the same outcome again, and the strong desire to avoid it.

So you carry your anticipatory fear (worry) into the current situation. Draining your power and energy. Have you noticed how often the anxiety you feel in anticipation of something awful happening is worse than experiencing the actual event?

Remember, your amygdala only reacts to stimuli. It’s your higher brain that has the ability to pause and reflect. To tease out the differences between the past and present situations. To evaluate your options. To mitigate the risk and choose wisely.

Every time you respond from your higher brain, your self-confidence grows. Conversely, every fearful reaction pokes a hole in your confidence.

You’re most powerful when you approach the unknown with thoughtful concern, which is a far less emotional reaction than worry and anxiety. In my opinion, because it’s inherently disempowering, worry is never warranted.

What do you think? Is it impossible not to get nervous and worry? Is worrying a good thing? If so, consider this: what would your life be like if you never worried again?

Author's Bio: 

Judy Widener is a Certified Life Coach and author of Power For A Lifetime: Tools You Customize to Build Your Personal Power Every Day Of Your Life. You can sign up for Discovering Your Values, a 5-day e-course at no cost at http://www.myinnerfrontiers.com. Her passion is assisting her clients to discover what is most important to them, then to create more balance and satisfaction in their lives. Empowerment Life Coaching is a comprehensive program that teaches clients simple ways to build their personal power and overcome obstacles to achieving their dreams. Judy has coached more than 600 people over the past 13 years. Her website is http://www.myinnerfrontiers.com.