Over the past six years I have sat, as a priest and as a therapist, with hundreds of people who have shared feelings of frustration and exasperation over how crazy life had become. People don’t feel they can even take a breath at times. The only rest they get is when their heads hit the pillow for a few hours, only to wake up the next day and step right back on the treadmill of life that is already set at level 10. Is there any wonder reported cases of anxiety and depression are on the rise and have been for several years? 

Even more concerning is the increased cases of stress, not to mention the impact it has on health and wellness. There are three types of stress and, surprisingly, not all stress is bad. Positive stress is a brief increase in your body’s stress activation, and can improve one’s performance. Tolerable stress is a more severe and prolonged activation of your organs and body systems. Toxic stress, however, is extreme, chronic and prolonged activation of the body’s physiological stress response system which leads to long-term changes in the brain and body, such as neurologic changes in the structure and function of the brain.

Why is there is an increase in toxic stress, and what can we do about it?

Jean M. Twenge, PhD, of San Diego State University, recently explored this question and developed three theories: 1. Our relationships and community ties are weaker. 2. We’re more focused on money, fame, and image. 3. Our expectations are too high, we're trying to have it all and do it all.

Dr. Twenge’s first theory, the weakening of relationships, really stands out here. After all, we are created as relational beings in the image of a relational God. From the time of Adam and Eve, God created us to be in relationship with one another. Today, sadly, our relationships are deteriorating. People are connecting primarily through the mediums of social media, with short blurbs and quick pics, and we’re suffering because of it. It’s like communicating through some sort of new Morse code. But we can’t blame social media any more than anything else for the decline of interpersonal relationships.

It’s not only unfortunate that we are bearing witness to the deterioration of relationships; it’s even more tragic to witness the disintegration of a holy institution, the family. In many homes, the crazy pace of life has led to dual income families, kids becoming more involved in extracurricular activities, and an unprecedented amount of everyone sitting in front of some sort of screen or another. Healthy, intentional, face-to-face relationships have all but disappeared.

This is one of the reasons why the Family Wellness Ministry instituted “Reclaiming the Family Dinner,” a program to strengthen those relationships in our homes by promoting face-to-face and heart-to-heart conversations. Studies have shown that kids who eat with their families frequently are less likely to get depressed, consider suicide, or develop an eating disorder. They are also more likely to have better grades, delay sex, and not abuse drugs and alcohol. Reclaim your family time together by gathering around the table and giving thanks to God. Make a family plan to intentionally disconnect from cell phones at the table. Experience the transforming power of engaging in face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversations with your family!

So, what can be done? 

For starters, put the screens away, and carve out intentional time with our loved ones. Time at the dinner table, time in the morning and night for family reflection and prayer, time outside. Reading the bible together for a little while at night. Connecting with one another through conversation, and togetherness. Through activities such as these, we can limit toxic stress and promote healthier familial values, productivity, and creativity. We can set realistic, manageable goals, and feel pride in accomplishing them. We can return to what God created us for – to be in communion with one another.