Chantal Donnelly (she/her) is a physical therapist and owner of Body Insight – a wellness company. She has two rehabilitation videos on the market: Strong Knees and Pain Free at Work. After noticing that her patients’ physical therapy progress was often limited by stress, she joined the Resilience Toolkit program to improve her effectiveness as a healing practitioner.
Chantal is a Certified Resilience Toolkit Facilitator (a graduate of Certification Cohort 6) working in the Los Angeles area. She does private facilitation with individuals as well as group workshops, and specializes in working with people with chronic pain or chronic illness. She has just submitted the first draft of a book she is writing with the working title SETTLED: How to Find Calm in a World That Requires Being Stressed. It is a stress guidebook from a physical therapy perspective.
We had the pleasure of talking with Chantal about her experiences as a Resilience Toolkit Facilitator, and are excited to shine a light on the amazing work she is doing! Read below.
Describe your experience of facilitating The Resilience Toolkit in 1-2 words.
How are you working with The Resilience Toolkit?
I use the guiding questions a lot as the basis, the foundation of what I do. I see a lot of physical therapy patients. And so if I’m working with patients whose pain has been set off by a stressful event or their progress is very clearly limited by stressors in their life that are ongoing and unyielding, then those are the types of patients, who I ask, “are you interested in learning about this, calming your nervous system down?” The way I put it is that my hands can unwind muscle and tendons and connective tissue, but life tends to wind it back up again. And so it’s this nervous system down regulation that helps to keep the unwinding that I can do with my physical therapy techniques. It kind of gives it more stick and more stay. So with that group of patients – it tends to be my chronic pain patients – I will offer that to them, and then I’ll start with the guiding questions and the framework of polyvagal theory. I’ll bring in other theories we learn, too, but start with polyvagal to give them an idea of how stress works and how relaxation works.
And then the tools. I do a combination of tools, and what I have found is that my physical therapy background gives me a really good perspective of that body-up piece that we focus on. Because that’s what I do – I do body. I used to do it in a different way that was very much a traditional physical therapy way. But I have that anatomy and physiology background, and that tends to help me with Toolkit stuff. So, for example, if I teach someone settling breath, I also teach them how not to engage their scalene muscles, because the scalenes are involved in fight/flight. And so, if you have chronically tight scalenes there’s almost a mismatch in the neuroception where your body is like, “no, no, no, we’re tight here, we’re in fight/flight.” And when you teach someone how to do settling breath, sometimes they engage those scalene muscles. And then being able to do manual therapy to the sternocleidomastoid muscle, which is innervated by one of the social engagement nerves.
So being able to incorporate what I do as a physical therapist, with my knowledge that I received from the Toolkit. If I’m gonna do orienting, for example, I might work on someone’s scalenes first. Get those muscles to relax a little bit, and then Orient. Or maybe I do a pre- and post- kind of a test. “Let’s do Orient without the sternocleidomastoid release. And then I do that release which is basically the portal to the parasympathetic ventral vagus in particular. So allowing that Orient to maybe be even that much more effective.
And then I will also use tools that are not specifically Resilience Toolkit. I do some of Stanley Rosenberg’s eye movement, which is basically EMDR. What I found is that there’s a lot of nerve gliding type work that we do in physical therapy because nerves can get stuck with adhesions and scar tissue and that cause pain. So you move your leg one way and you feel pain in your back, but it’s actually because the nerve is not gliding down the leg properly. I have found that those techniques really, literally help people with their nervous system. You can see people really regulate with that kind of work. So now that I have that understanding of what downregulation looks like in a human being, I’m able to see it in real-time with my patients. It’s kind of fun.
What has been most satisfying in your work as a Resilience Toolkit Facilitator?
Seeing peoples’ “aha moments” when they begin to understand their stress responses.That shift from helplessness and shame to self-compassion is amazing to witness. You can see people changing in front of you as they start to understand that what they thought they were coming to you for was to be fixed, and suddenly to realize that they don’t need to be fixed, that what they’re experiencing is normal even though it might not feel comfortable to them. But that there’s also ways to feel less uncomfortable in their body. To understand not only is it normal, but it can get better because – that it’s not a pathology.
Describe a challenge you have encountered in your work as a Resilience Toolkit Facilitator.
Well, when people come to me, they want physical therapy right? They want the hands on. So when I start telling them that there’s this nervous system component, first of all, they don’t even really know what the nervous system is. So it’s a challenge to get over the hurdle of saying “let’s try this, maybe this will help,” and they say, “Oh, I’m always going to be stressed. Unless I could get rid of my financial problems,” etc. And I say, “I can’t help with the stressors, but I can help you with your response. And yes, you should be stressed about that. And there’s a way to mitigate that a little bit.” So sometimes, getting people to understand how much their physical pain is interwoven with their stress responses can be challenging.
I’m thinking of a particular patient I had who was a district attorney, and a really conservative, uptight kind of guy. I told him his back pain was related to his stress, and he said, “I’m retired. What are you talking about? I don’t have any stress!” I told him that I had a sense that it was related, and the reason I said that to him is because I literally felt it with my hands when I was working on his back. I could feel from the way he was responding and breathing that it was stress related. But he never believed me, and he wasn’t really interested in any tools, so I didn’t push. And then the next time I saw him after he was discharged, I was out walking during the lockdown and he was driving by. He put his window down, and he said, “How did you know it was stress related?” It turns out his back flared up again at the beginning of the pandemic. I just knew!
So there’s that sort of barrier that comes up for me for sure. They think I’m saying, “it’s all in your head.” There’s also a component where people say, for example, “when I was skiing I hurt myself.” So I say, “I can feel that – I know you hurt yourself. And you’re not feeling as well because of stress, and a lot of times chronic pain and chronic stress overlap a lot. Especially if you become hypervigilant about your pain.” When the nervous system becomes hypervigilant about the pain, then you’ve got a problem. So I’m constantly dealing with the chronic pain mechanisms that rightfully activate the nervous system. But it can be difficult to convince someone that you believe that they are in pain, that they really do have structural problems, AND that the autonomic nervous system is also part of the problem.
How are you seeing alchemical resilience and transformation show up in the work that you’re doing?
I am seeing it well with my chronic pain patients. I’m seeing people be able to step away from their pain and have space between their identity and their pain. And that’s a huge step for them. So I’m seeing a lot of that. Like when they flare up, they don’t freak out about it as much, and that creates resilience for somebody who either has chronic illness or chronic pain. It’s a game changer with my patients. And then I have some people who are clients, not physical therapy patients. With them, I’m seeing changes in parenting. I see a lot of moms, and with them I’m seeing just a softer approach to parenting. Those are the 2 biggies with the particular people that I work with.
I had a client who, in our work together, we discovered together that she had coupled parenting with an experience with caretaking. She has 2 pretty young girls, I think, a one year old and a three year old. I actually talk about this in my book – I have a chapter on mismatching neuroception, if you want to call it that. (I have a little section on how Nkem encourages us not to call it “faulty neuroception.”) So this client had coupled parenting with being a caretaker, because she had taken care of her father, who was an alcoholic for a long time. Her body had almost equated caring for her kids as if something really bad was gonna happen, because it constantly did with her father when she was caretaking for him. And so she had this fight/flight response around being a parent that had nothing to do with her kids and nothing to do with being a parent. But as soon as her body went into caretaking mode, it got the brain got a little confused, thinking, “this usually ends up really bad.” Being able to unwind that just from talking about the tools, and how there’s the brain predictive thing. She started telling me about her dad, and I was like, “Hmm! So what do you think is going on there?”
Describe any special projects you are working on.
I just submitted the first draft of a book I am writing. The working title is SETTLED: How to Find Calm in a World That Requires Being Stressed. It is a stress guidebook from a physical therapy perspective. The book was supposed to be about goals – how goals can be stressful, and how stress can sabotage goals – and how to pull those two things apart and be regulated as we reach towards our desires. And now there are 2 chapters in the book about that, and now the book is fully about stress in general and stress management from a physical therapy lens. I’m still in the middle of the publishing journey, so it won’t be published until June or July.
What’s something that has piqued your interest recently that you would want to share with other Toolkit facilitators?
As far as things that piqued my interests – the entire book is a whole research project. So I have book after book after book after book about things that you wouldn’t even necessarily equate with stress. Every Sunday I’ve actually been on Instagram talking about a book that I quote in my book. I just talked about the last book I researched, The Molecule of More. So talking about dopamine, and how that affects our wanting to reach for goals, and affects our ability to be satisfied when we do reach them, and how that interplays with being up-regulated, because trying to get to a goal can be very stress inducing…just the idea of needing to be different than we are. I love that book.
Anything else you would like to share.
I’m hoping to do workshops, once this book gets out there and published. And really, just taking The Resilience Toolkit and molding it together with my physical therapy stuff, has been kind of fun. I’m so grateful for having that information, because I was kind of feeling a little stale with the physical therapy, and knew that this was a missing link for my patients. To be able to really bring those two things together has been pretty exciting.
If you are interested in connecting with Chantal, you can check out her website or find her on social media: