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Turbulent Times: Why We're All Struggling and What We Can Do About It

Estimated time to read: 12 minutes (2,313 words)


In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, political strife, economic uncertainty, and social unrest, many individuals are grappling with various difficulties. These struggles are evident in people's behavior, collective grief, and social statistics. This article aims to delve into the realms of prosocial behavior, the impact of recent events, and the underlying factors that hinder our ability to foster a personal sense of safety and wellbeing. By understanding these dynamics and implementing actionable strategies, we can work towards alleviating the impacts of nervous system distress.

The Foundation of a Healthy Society

At the core of a well-functioning society lies prosocial behavior – the recognition of the importance of prioritizing the well-being of others and actively contributing to the collective good. Acts of kindness, empathy, cooperation, and altruism play a pivotal role in fostering positive relationships, building trust, and creating a profound sense of connectedness and community. Engaging in prosocial behavior not only benefits others but also brings personal fulfillment and a greater sense of purpose. By extending a helping hand, showing compassion, and working together towards common goals, individuals weave a social fabric that is resilient, supportive, and conducive to overall well-being. Prosocial behavior has far-reaching positive effects on society as a whole, reinforcing the values of compassion, cooperation, and collective responsibility.

Understanding our Autonomic Nervous System

Polyvagal Theory, a groundbreaking concept developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, offers valuable insights into how the autonomic nervous system shapes our responses to stress and perceived threats. According to this theory, our nervous system has three primary states: the social engagement system, the sympathetic nervous system, and the dorsal vagal system.

The social engagement system, mediated by the ventral vagal pathway, is activated when individuals feel safe, secure, and connected. In this state, people are significantly likely to exhibit prosocial behavior such as empathy, compassion, cooperation, and even learning. The ventral vagal system facilitates positive social interactions, fosters a sense of belonging and trust, and allows individuals to engage with others in mutually beneficial ways.

However, when people perceive threats or feel unsafe, the sympathetic nervous system, associated with the fight-or-flight mobilization response, takes over. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for immediate action, narrowing the focus on survival rather than fostering prosocial tendencies. In this state, individuals may exhibit defensive behaviors, aggression, or engage in avoidance and isolation as self-protective measures.

If our nervous system determines it cannot overcome the perceived threat through mobilization, the dorsal vagal system, activated during extreme stress or when an individual's nervous system feels overwhelmed, can lead to shutdown responses, also known as immobilization. In this state, individuals may withdraw, become dissociated, or exhibit apathy as the body conserves energy and protects itself by disengaging from the external environment.

Understanding the interplay between these autonomic states is crucial in comprehending why individuals may be exhibit difficult behaviors depending on their perceived level of safety. It also explains the alarming rise of trends we are seeing across social statistics.

The Impact of Recent Events

For almost a decade, noticeable and measurable shifts have occurred in people's behavior and social interactions. Many individuals have become more self-focused, prioritizing their own needs and desires over the wellbeing of others. This shift can be witnessed in various aspects of society, such as increased polarization, decreased empathy, and a rise in hostility both online and offline. Trust in institutions, including governments, media, and businesses, has eroded, contributing to divisions within society. Add to that political conflict, economic uncertainty and a massive wealth shift, and civil unrest, it is no wonder that people are struggling.

  • A report from Harvard University suggests that 36% of all Americans—including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel "serious loneliness". [a]

  • The most recent Trust Barometer survey by Edelman [b], trust in institutions, such as governments, media, and businesses, has been steadily eroding. This erosion of trust can lead to further divisions within society and hinder the willingness to engage in prosocial behavior.

  • According to the CDC, after falling steadily since 2010, divorce rates took an uptick in 2021 [c].

  • Traffic fatalities experienced double-digit growth four quarters in a row beginning in the second half of 2020 and continue to rise [d].

  • The Campaign to End Loneliness reports that loneliness affects millions of people worldwide, with serious implications for mental health and overall wellbeing. These feelings of isolation can contribute to a lack of social connectedness and a reduced inclination to engage in prosocial behaviors.

The ongoing pandemic and the political, economic, and social upheaval in the United States over the past few years have had a profound impact on people's behavior and the challenges we face in fostering prosocial behavior and creating a sense of safety. Prolonged periods of isolation, economic hardships, fear, and loss have taken a toll on mental health and wellbeing, reducing individuals' capacity for prosocial actions. Political polarization, social media echo chambers, and social inequalities have deepened divisions, eroded trust, and hindered empathy. And then the pandemic hit.

The Pandemic

The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020, and a pandemic on March 11, 2020. In the United States, the first reported case was confirmed in Kirkland, WA on January 20, 2020. In the U.S. and around the world, stay-at-home orders began being implemented in mid-to-late March of 2020. While steps were necessary from a physical health perspective, these measures disrupted our ability to connect with others and maintain our sense of safety. Immediately, we became a dysregulated world.

One of our strongest biological drivers as human beings, just above our core driver for safety, is a biological need for connection and belonging. Evolutionarily speaking, this drive for community and connectedness helped us stay safe against predators and natural dangers, but it also provided necessary interpersonal functions like co-regulation. While human beings begin to learn regulation through co-regulation even before birth, we continue to require positive and healthy co-regulation throughout our lives.

When the pandemic hit and we were told to stay home, our brains very quickly realized our social needs, including community, connection, and co-regulation, were not being met. Unfortunately, the part of our brain that detects whether we are safe or in danger does not have language. Our brains detected a serious threat - isolation from our communities, connection, belonging, co-regulation, significant change in routine, and more - but it did not understand why the threat was occurring. Subconsciously, our brains responded as best they could to keep us safe. In many ways, we have experienced a collective grief.

The Grief Perspective

Given everything that is going on, it is understandable that our nervous systems are having a difficult time. All around us are signs that we are not safe, and our nervous systems are responding accordingly. Nearly everyone I talk with is experiencing discomfort, and that discomfort they are experiencing is called grief.

The stages of grief, as originally proposed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are a model that describes the emotional process individuals may go through when coping with significant loss or devastating news. These stages are not necessarily experienced in a linear or sequential manner, and individuals may not go through all the stages or may experience them in a different order. Given that, I prefer to refer to them as the symptoms of grief and they are as follows:

  • Denial: Individuals experience shock, disbelief, or numbness as a defense mechanism against overwhelming emotions. Denial can be observed in behaviors such as aggressive resistance to safety measures like masks, vaccines, and social distancing as well as in political, social, and economic arenas. It is important to note that denial is avoidance, and avoidance is our default human response to anxiety.

  • Anger: Feelings of anger or frustration arise as individuals cope with powerlessness, fear, or hurt. Anger-related behaviors have seen a rise, serving as a way to express these underlying emotions.

  • Bargaining: Attempts to negotiate or make deals in an effort to regain what has been lost become common. Bargaining behavior is frequently observed as individuals seek exceptions or to find ways around restrictions. 

  • Depression: Profound sadness, emptiness, and a sense of hopelessness characterize this symptom as the reality of loss sets in. Depression leads to withdrawal from usual activities, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and lack of motivation. While depression is a natural response to loss, seeking professional help may be necessary if it becomes prolonged or significantly impairs daily functioning.

  • Acceptance: Individuals begin to come to terms with the loss, acknowledging the need to adapt to a changed reality. Acceptance does not mean forgetting or getting over the loss, but rather it signifies a recognition that life has changed and the beginning of adapting to this new reality. Acceptance involves finding peace, allowing oneself to grieve, and integrating the loss into one's life story.

It is important to note that grief is highly individualized, and not everyone will go through these stages in a linear or sequential manner. The process of grief can also be influenced by cultural, social, and personal factors, leading to variations in how individuals cope with loss.

Strategies for Fostering Prosocial Behavior and Felt-Safety

So far, we've covered the nervous system challenges we are facing, what is causing them, and how our brains are in an attempt to keep us safe. The chief question now becomes; What can we do about it? If our nervous system is dysregulated and distressed, then the key is to help it become more regulated and less distressed. Fortunately, there are actionable strategies that can be implemented to foster prosocial behavior and a sense of safety.

  • Limit exposure to distressing news: Giving our nervous systems a break by reducing exposure to distressing messages, particularly in the morning and before bed, can help lessen the impact of negative message on our nervous system, giving it an opportunity to repair and regulate.

  • Engage in group activities: Group activities such as singing, dancing, drum circles, team sports, yoga, tai chi, and meditation and mindfulness fosters a sense of unity and belonging, promoting social connection and stimulating the vagus nerve.

  • Share a meal: One of the more powerful ways to build community is to eat together with other people. When we eat, we are signaling to our brain that we are in a safe enough place to eat, i.e., not being chased by a bear, and therefore those we are eating with must be safe as well.
  • Volunteering and community service: Engaging in group volunteer activities or community service projects allows us to connect with others while making a positive impact. Working together towards a common goal promotes a sense of purpose, empathy, and social connection, potentially stimulating the vagus nerve.

  • Explore cold exposure: If we're feeling particularly dysregulated, cold showers, cold water immersion, or placing a cold pack on your face can activate the vagus nerve. The shock of cold exposure triggers a physiological response that stimulates the vagus nerve and can improve vagal tone.

  • Embrace physical touch: Massage and acupuncture, deep pressure, hugs, cuddling, weighted blankets, and even masturbation and healthy sex and can have a calming effect on the nervous system and stimulate the vagus nerve.

  • Practice co-regulation: Co-regulation refers to the process of regulating our nervous system through positive interactions with others. Engaging in activities that promote co-regulation, such as deep conversations, active listening, and empathetic connections, can help us regulate our emotions and foster a sense of safety.

  • Cultivate laughter: Genuine laughter can activate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation. Engage in activities that make you laugh, such as watching a comedy show or funny movie, or spending time with funny friends.

  • Try breathing exercises: In addition to deep breathing, specific breathing techniques can directly stimulate the vagus nerve. One example is the "4-7-8" breathing technique, where you inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. This pattern can help activate the relaxation response mediated by the vagus nerve.

  • Promote empathy and understanding: By understanding the impact of recent events on our nervous systems and recognizing that we are all having a hard time, it becomes possible to start being kinder and gentler and more gracious with others and ourselves.

  • Foster a sense of belonging: In my opinion, the major failing of the public health response to the pandemic and other assorted crises has been the neglect of people's socio-emotional needs. Understanding this, we can take steps to rebuild strong communities where individuals feel connected and supported through neighborhood initiatives, community projects, inclusive environments, and create spaces where all individuals feel connected, valued, and included.

  • Prioritize mental health and wellbeing: Address the stigma surrounding mental health and increase access to mental health services to support individuals' wellbeing.

  • Include others: We are seeing an epidemic of isolation and loneliness in western countries. When engaging in prosocial activities, make sure to include those who may be struggling with being alone.

It's important to note that if you have any underlying medical conditions or concerns, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before trying any new techniques or interventions to stimulate the vagus nerve. They can provide personalized guidance based on your specific circumstances.


Navigating the challenges of the present requires collective effort and continuous self-reflection. By nurturing empathy, embracing diversity, promoting dialogue, and addressing the impact of recent events, we can overcome the hurdles we face. Through individual actions, community initiatives, and systemic changes, we can pave the way towards a more compassionate, inclusive, and secure society for all.

Sources (retrieved on 6/19/2023)

[b] - 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer
[a] - The global pandemic has deepened an epidemic of loneliness in America.
[c] - CDC FastStats - Marriage and Divorce
[d] NHTSA Early Estimates: 2022 Traffic Crash Deaths | NHTSA - National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation