Overcoming Fears

by Guy Shahar

Published: 25th April, 2019

After returning from our time at the Mifne Centre in Israel in 2011, it was like a rebirth for my son.  No longer unhappy, continually frustrated, overwhelmed and cut off; instead suddenly filled with joy and determined to explore his life.

Despite the challenge of a busy school, which was building to nearly 1000 pupils, he was eager to go and to be fulfilled there.

Initially, the environment was overwhelming.  He was far behind the other children in the class academically, and a little thrown emotionally.  But it didn’t take him long to adapt and absorb the situation, regaining his exploratory excitement, and his schoolwork in many areas became exceptional.

A Setback

Then, a couple of years ago, there was a prolonged bullying situation at school.  This was the one thing he was unable to cope with.  This sort of thing is tragically devastating to any child, but as my TED talk explains it is generally even more devastating to an autistic child.  For a long time, as is often the case in such situations, we were treated as over-protective parents and little action was taken.  He held out valiantly for months, but eventually, it took its toll.

It led to a major regression for the first time since he was one.  He appeared utterly unable to focus in the class and looked totally lost and disoriented there (though, interestingly, he remembered most of what was taught and resisted any suggestion that he leave school), and became much more temperamental and difficult to reach and connect with at home.  He was so much less happy in life, and with that, allowed the help and support in so much less.  For the second time, we feared that all the hope we had for a contented life for our son was being lost.

Eventually, the school did take strong action, but by then it was too late and nothing made any difference to him.  He had to ensure further months of this and didn’t begin to recover until we changed schools last year and his environment became safe enough for him to rely on and relax enough to eventually embark on the journey towards becoming his old self again.

 Onset of Fears

He soon regained much of his joyful personality, at least some of the time.  But alongside this, new fears, which had begun emerging during the bullying period, multiplied and deepened.  He became suddenly afraid of heights, no longer able to ride his bike or get on a horse (which he had previously loved so much) or even walk on a pavement if the curb was too high.  He became afraid of being in any room where there was a sharp knife, so refused to set foot in the kitchen at any time, even if all the knives were away in drawers, and he made a big sign for the lounge door showing “NO KNIVES” in a red circle.  His longstanding issues around temperature intensified, and he developed a reliance on wearing the right clothes for the right temperature based on what he decided was correct according to the number of degrees on the weather forecast – and he panicked if anyone opened the fridge when he was anywhere near it.

These persisted for very many months and led to many complications during that time.

The Will to Change

I have always seen within him a formidable resilience in the face of so many setbacks and such a strong will to take responsibility and find solutions to the many difficulties he has to face.  The problem is that in the midst of the unrelenting overwhelm of daily life, it is hard to access this strength of will and to do anything with it.  For that you need some breathing space, some respite from the onslaught, or a surge of super-human determination.  Or failing that, maybe just some really inspiring encouragement that hits the spot – maybe that’s enough.

And he found it in a book.

He has always loved inspirational children’s books, even if their reading age was well below his.  The Wayne Dwyer books are great (like Unstoppable Me and No Excuses), but the latest one we found was a short 2-chapter paperback called The Law of Attraction by Jennifer Quaggin, which aimed to make this principle accessible and understandable to children.

It promised in the introduction that if you read it every day for 3 weeks, you’d be amazed at the changes.  While this excited him, we were sceptical and worried that it might lead to disappointment, but he fully believed that it would empower him to bring great as yet undefined changes into his life (already an application of the Law of Attraction before even reading it).

It took about twice the promised 3-week timeframe for anything to actually change, but the process towards this began straight away.  He was impressed with the idea that his thinking (and simply where he chose to put his thoughts) could determine his actual experience of life and even influence the things that happened to him.  He did need some adult help to appreciate and understand the subtleties of this, but he was eager to learn it.

He was fascinated by the concept of the power of beliefs, and started to be open to the idea that his fears might actually be unfounded – based on false beliefs that were tricking him into being afraid of things that weren’t actually scary at all.

But he seemed to get stuck here, continually asking what he could do about his fears.  We gave him ideas, which he listened patiently to, but didn’t seem to absorb.  He wasn’t willing to discuss the details of these fears, or to challenge them, or even to take tiny steps to find out whether he was really bothered by the things he thought he was.  He experimented with writing down his fears and burning the paper, but that made no difference whatsoever.  He resorted to repeatedly telling us how his fears were making him miserable and he didn’t know what to do about them.

We thought we had made a mistake by introducing this line of thinking to him and that we might actually have made things worse by pushing something he wasn’t ready for – and thus inviting him to trap himself in a circular intellectualisation of what was going on.

But he was ready.  This was just his way of putting the building blocks in place for his impending transformation.  He was eager to fully understand and quick to grasp how the fears may have started, at a time of great challenge for him.  He was fascinated to find out that when 2 adults fall in love and are so happy, seeing only the beauty in each other, they see beauty everywhere they look too.  From that, it was then easier to understand how things could work the other way round, as they had for him: at a time when the challenges of being bullied was taking up all his attention and felt totally overpowering, devastating and fearful, he was naturally inclined to perceive danger in other areas too and try hard to keep himself safe.  He had absorbed this very deeply, leading to long term fears of things that were not in themselves fearful.  It was really just a deeper understanding of the law of attraction that he was acquiring, and he was so keen to absorb this understanding.

What he was actually doing was taking full responsibility for bringing about the changes that he had by now fully decided to bring about, and in his own time, laying the conceptual foundations to ensure his success.

How He Did It

Then, one day, we said something when he was around about deciding what to wear based on how we felt the temperature (as opposed to basing a decision on the temperature in degrees).  He had heard this from us many times before and it had had no impact.  This time, he got very distressed and began crying profusely.  We assured him that it didn’t need to apply to him and he could go on making his own decisions in his own way, but his distress persisted for a long time.  He complained “it’s too confusing” and remained upset and helpless for a long time.

A few minutes after this episode, he was bounding proudly around, saying that he would learn from us about how to decide what to wear in a different way.  He said we had misunderstood him when we had tried to reassure him.  He wasn’t wanting us to help him go back to his old fear-based ways of thinking – he had wanted us to give him the confidence and reassurance that it was safe and simple to make the change and that we would help him to make sense of it.  He had already come round to the idea of changing to live according to the new reality he was starting to understand.  The stress was simply his way of processing the magnitude and apparent complexity of the task and preparing himself for it.

And this was the start of the end of all his fears.  Nothing immediately changed in his steadfastness in wearing the right clothes, but he was taking steps to prepare for the end of his fear-based thinking.  For example, he pasted a sticker over the top of the “No Knives” sign on the lounge door saying, “WARNING: This sign is endangered” (he was adding his incredible humour to the process).

And suddenly, a few days later, the sign came down and he asked us to bring sharp knives into the lounge, and even to have a knife-party in there.  On the same day, he started bouncing on the rebounder for the first time in a couple of years and was soon climbing the highest frames in playground.  Within a few days, he was taking off his gloves outside and proudly proclaiming that he didn’t need them and actually felt fine without them.  And his energy returned after being dulled for many months.  He is now once again running around in fun and keen to go on long walks.  It is a stark demonstration of how chronic worry and anxiety can impact a person on many levels.

The Result

At the time of writing, these events are very recent, but already he seems like a totally different boy – lighter, more joyful, more communicative and interested in others, more playful than we have seen for a long time.  It is like a massive weight has been lifted from him.  We are awed and humbled by the incredible work he has done with such unshakable determination.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for any person in life is to have to learn to handle an untamed human mind.  All the more so if your brain is chemically pre-disposed to rampant activity and you need to exist in an environment that constantly stimulates that activity.  We are so happy that at such a young age, our son is already understanding how to negotiate the complexities of his mind in a way that has the capacity to actually liberate him from the anxieties that it has created, and make it easier for him to deal with any future fears more confidently and successfully.  It points to a promising future.

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