Book Review | “Settled: How to Find Calm in a Stress-Inducing World” by Chantal Donnelly

Chantal Donnelly, Author of "Settled", Photo Used by Permission

One of the most important concepts that I use in my practice as a psychotherapist is the ‘window of tolerance’ as written about by Dan Siegel.

In her book Settled: How to Find Calm in a Stress-Inducing World, Ms. Donnelly invites readers to establish a more settled place for their emotional and physical well-being using a variety of well-researched, body-based techniques. Her style of writing is both personal and engaging and I have already suggested both her book and ‘how-to’ videos to support clients who are struggling to stay within their window of tolerance.

Ms. Donnelly has a compassionate and caring tone that helps readers to disengage from the vicious cycle where they feel pressure to NOT feel the symptoms that reflect a high level of stress. Rather than using shame and shoulds for “not getting it right”, she encourages a sense of curiosity and spaciousness that acknowledges “everybody is different and every body is different.” She also wonderfully redefines success as ”feeling safe enough to play” rather than achieving any set goal or standard. “This shift steers us away from seeking awareds, approval, and accolades and guides us towards a true spirit of lightness and joy in our pursuits.” (Settled, p.309)

In her book, Ms. Donnelly does an admirable job of pointing to the latest science in the field of psychology in a style that is both understandable and approachable.

One of her key takeaways is the stress quadrant that looks at our impulses along axes that track alertness, movement, stillness and the freeze response. Highlighting the element of social engagement brings a deeper understanding to how stress levels are more accurately described as a bell curve rather than a straightforward diagonal line.  (Although she doesn’t reference it, the Yerkes-Dodson stress curve very clearly summarizes the dangers of too little stress as well as stress that is too often, too intense or lasts for too long).

Some concepts I would have wanted to see more expanded upon in her book are that stress is a response to change and can arise from events perceived as positive as well as ones that are perceived to be negative.  The pain of childbirth or surgery that is chosen can be unbearable in the moment, but they are more easily withstood both because of the sense of agency of having made the choice, as well as the anticipated fulfillment and/or desire being met. Furthermore, having meaning and purpose associated with stressors can frequently change the ease with which a person comes back into a more settled state. Being able to fluidly return to an ideal state of stress contributes to physical and emotional health by strengthening inner resilience.

Another emerging concept that would have been well placed in Ms. Donnelly’s book is the understanding that resilience is different from hardiness.

The former being a capacity that is built by facing challenges and stressors and learning how to recover from being too far outside one’s comfort zone. Hardiness is more inherent and points to an innate capacity to more easily respond to change. Facing the same stressful situation, one person responds as though they are being asked to swim across an entire lake, while another person sees the same situation as a puddle to either walk around or splash through.

In her book Ms. Donnely refers to many psychological tools and therapies including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and IFS (Internal Family Systems). As an EMDR trained psychotherapist, I find her two-sentence description of EMDR doesn’t do enough justice to this well-established trauma therapy.  EMDR has been endorsed by the WHO because of the substantial body of research demonstrating its efficacy to treat PTSD.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Ms. Donnelly’s writing is how she incorporates the full body into every chapter.

Her years of experience as a physical therapist shine through her examples and her explanations, whether describing how to release the scalene muscles or sharing a study on the impact of increased inflammation caused by self-criticism or describing tools to eat with more awareness. By consistently inviting us into a more embodied state, Ms. Donnelly gives us practical tools to return to a settled state when out of our window of tolerance.

Another highlight of Settled is the focus on interpersonal relationships. Ms. Donnelly writes about the importance of social connection and the dangers of social isolation. She also includes lived experience of how to bring these tools into relationships with partners, siblings and children. I deeply appreciate her naming that in circumstances where danger is real, stress is a very appropriate response. In these instances, it is best to use the body’s cues to maintain safety.

Settled is a book that will provide necessary insights and tools to many who struggle with the multiple physical and emotional symptoms that stress causes.

Ms. Donnelly covers a wide range of behaviors that can cause immense distress and gives clear explanations of the science behind the tools and exercises she shares. There is a significant overlap between what motivates someone to seek out a psychotherapist and a physical therapist. I have already added this book as a valuable resource for many of my clients and have heard from many how helpful they found the videos and exercises.  I highly recommend reading this book – the insights, learning and comprehensive tools and resources will be a wonderful addition to anyone’s toolbox!