I learned the importance of keeping calm for chemo

When Cork woman Valerie Wistreich, who has worked with trauma victims, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer last year, she turned her attention to nervous system regulation to help her cope, writes Colette Sheridan
I learned the importance of keeping calm for chemo

Valerie Wistreich, who lives in Kinsale and runs the Well Institute.

A KINSALE-based couple has been responding to Covid-19 with a survey on mental health as well as group therapy aimed at lowering stress levels.

Adrian Wistreich, who runs Kinsale Pottery, is also a survey research consultant. His survey reveals resilience among entrepreneurs, but also a loss of confidence among business owners as they fight to re-build their companies.

The survey was carried out on behalf of the Well Institute, which is run by Adrian’s wife, Valerie. She is a psychotherapist specialising in trauma, who has moved into the new field of nervous system regulation to cope with stress. She runs workshops on Zoom and, when she can, face-to-face ones.

Valerie’s own story about receiving the all-clear from stage 4 colon cancer is remarkable. Originally from north Cork, she worked for the international aid agency, Medicine Sans Frontiers, (MSF), basing herself in London from 1985 to 2000.

“I specialise in trauma and would have been working with people who were operating in very unstable and insecure environments and would have been exposed to quite a lot of traumatic experiences,” said Valerie.

“I was also working with people who experienced childhood trauma. It might be emotional trauma or sexual abuse.”

When she moved back to Cork, she continued to work with MSF, flying to and from London. At the same time, she set up the Well Institute. She reckoned that if she brought people together, she could teach them how to regulate their nervous systems and calm down.

“I wanted to come out from the therapy room and work with groups of people.”

But, in September, 2019, Valerie received a devastating cancer diagnosis very suddenly.

“It presented me with a huge life challenge. It was incumbent upon me to really use the resources to keep myself calm in the midst of my own crisis. It ignited even more passion in me for the work because I lived through it with the realisation that it works.

Adrian and Valerie Wistreich, who live in Kinsale, County Cork.
Adrian and Valerie Wistreich, who live in Kinsale, County Cork.

“My journey in the last year was phenomenal. I was able to calm down and to go into the cancer treatment. I really believe that using the resources to regulate my nervous system enabled my treatment. I went into chemotherapy in a really calm way so I wasn’t in battle mode. I wasn’t fighting against it. I allowed it into my system. It is tough going. It’s very easy to build up anxiety about going to hospital every two weeks for three days of chemo. You know you’re going to feel really lousy, not to mention the fear you have about the cancer.

“I couldn’t do anything about the cancer but I could do a lot to keep myself well.”

Valerie remembers her consultant telling her that she had cancer and that it was “not good”.

“He was really concerned. I could feel my whole system becoming disregulated because I was going into fight or flight panic.”

But she was able to breathe herself “back down so that I could be calm and have a conversation and process the information being given to me.”

Valerie felt unwell going through the treatment. She didn’t feel like eating but made herself eat.

“If you stop fighting and battling the cancer, you can actually bring yourself quite calmly through the process. 

Every single day, I got out of the house and walked the dog along Garrettstown beach. I could cry myself up and down the beach. I was trying to process the fear I felt. It was fear around dying. But just allowing myself to be in the fear while being able to breathe myself to a calmer place meant I didn’t get overwhelmed by it.

I wasn’t so much afraid but I was profoundly sad. I was in grief really.”

The unexpected outcome after four months of chemotherapy was a wonderful surprise.

“I had a clear scan in May. My oncologist phoned me to tell me and said he had only ever seen this once before. It was not what he expected.”

As Valerie points out, she had been high risk when she was in her second round of chemotherapy because of lockdown. Covid-19 brought with it a lot of anxiety. But she managed to keep herself “really calm”.

“I kept coming back to the serenity prayer, to accept what I couldn’t change, to have the courage to change what I could and to have the wisdom to know the difference.”

Valerie believes that if she hadn’t had the resources “when I hit that major life crisis, I think it would have been much more difficult for me. I was in a situation of high anxiety.

“It can be hard to calm down. But I had all these resources at my fingertips which meant I could interrupt the anxiety cycle and the stress.”

Other than trying to recover her energy levels after being ill, Valerie felt very well emotionally.

However, she is not making claims about being able to cure oneself of cancer through calming the nervous system.

“I would always say my medical treatment was what benefitted me.

“I had a fabulous oncologist and a brilliant oncologist and amazing modern treatments for cancer.

“But I think you can help yourself and can definitely enable the treatment to do its job as well as it can by being very calm rather than having your whole system flooded with adrenaline and cortisone.

“When you’re calm, the chemo can get on with the job. It’s about learning to help yourself.”

Valerie gives group workshops designed to teach and empower people to take charge of their nervous systems.

It all sounds like mindfulness?

Valerie says that although mindfulness is “wonderful” and is something she uses herself, “it isn’t helpful for everybody.”

“For some people, going into the stillness of meditation can actually trigger their anxiety. It can make them feel worse.

“Calming your nervous system can be more to do with working through movement rather than meditation.

“Processing through movement, such as yoga or tai chi, can be very effective. Through working with people, I’m trying to figure out what actually helps you as an individual.

“It’s about encouraging people to really understand their own system, to listen to themselves and to follow what works for them.”

MORE ON THE

RESEARCH RESULTS

The Well Institute’s survey, conducted online between October 14 and 27 among 257 SMEs, found that the first lockdown caused huge shifts in business owners’ views of their work “and many of the negatives reported have not shifted since the end of lockdown”.

Small business owners’ sense of empowerment for self-determination plummeted (from 62% to 25% during lockdown).

Being happy in work (32% before Covid) went down to just 15% during lockdown.

But, against these negative findings, there were some positive changes.

SME owners and the self-employed reported that their productivity is returning.

Being driven by fear of failure was at 28% before and during lockdown, and has since declined to 22%.

Small business owners report that the most important factors in their business survival or success are their own mental health (88%) and having a positive mindset (88%) followed by keeping calm (84%),being adaptable to new ways of doing business (82%) and having stamina (81%).

For more see www.thewellinstitute.com.

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