The words of Dr. John Krouse, dean of the UTRGV Medical School, became the headline of a story in the July issue of Valley Business Report.
Addressing the high incidence of obesity, diabetes and heart and lung disease in the Rio Grande Valley, Krouse stressed that we need to “build a culture of health.”
When addressing physical health, the tendency is to focus on nutrition and fitness, which are undeniably two key components of overall wellness. The third component is the brain, or mental health, and is closely tied to nutrition and fitness.
Recognizing Mental Health Crucial to Well-Being
Recognizing the need to address mental health and wellness, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez established it as one of his top priorities upon taking office Jan. 1, 2019.
“I wanted to bring attention to mental illness,” Cortez said, “and to bring people in the field of mental health together to identify resources available and those lacking so my office can assist in getting those needed.”
Cortez directed members of his staff to initiate an Hidalgo County Mental Health Coalition. Leaders from agencies, institutions and county departments comprise the coalition and address the mental-health needs in our community. The group has compiled a list of resources in the county. A website has been developed to provide these resources to the community. The Coalition will begin addressing the mental health/wellness needs.
Laura Villalobos Garza, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow with Mireles Psychological Health Services in McAllen, said mental health encompasses the emotional, social and psychological aspects of our well-being.
“Right now, families are at home much more than usual,” Villalobos Garza said of communities dealing with COVID-19. “We are not as social as we are used to being, and that affects our emotional and psychological well-being.”
She stresses the importance of “intention,” which focuses on planning. Villalobos Garza recommends all members of the family thus creating a bucket list.
“I have four kids at home,” she said, “so one item on my list might be for us to learn a new card game.”
One of her children is an organizer and her list includes creating a menu for the week. Another likes to cook with her mom, so they will also have one-on-one time cooking meals on the weekly menu.
“For empty nesters, the list may include things they can do at home, together. It’s about quality time,” she said.
Developing Intention, Healthy Habits
Villalobos Garza said obesity is often related to lack of intention. What’s quick and what can feed a lot of people, she said, often drive the family’s meals.
“Instead, be intentional. What will the vegetable be? What is the best portion size?’’ she asked. “Start when the kids are young to create those healthy habits.”
Villalobos Garza listens to short daily intentions on budhagirl.com every morning, which then drives her to set up her daily intentions. She also firmly believes in exercise for mental health and would love to see a family wellness center in the Valley where families can go together, split up to attend different classes offered and then go home, together.
Information on the Harvard Medical School – Harvard Health Publishing website points to the importance of exercise.
“The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol,’’ the website said. “It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.”
A State of Mind
In March of 1995, Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician from Mumbai, India, along with his wife founded Laughter Yoga. It combines laughter exercises with Pranayama, yoga breathing techniques. Mayra Avila, coordinator of counseling at South Texas College, traveled to Dallas in 2012 to get certified in Laughter Yoga so she could use it at HOPE Family Health Center, where she worked at the time.
One year later, Kataria trained Avila to become a Laughter Yoga trainer and subsequently named her a laughter ambassador in 2019.
“Through laughter yoga,” Avila said, “I have learned how to cope with my life situations.”
Deep breathing reduces the levels of adrenaline and cortisol and also increases oxygen flow, she said.
“Laughter yoga makes people mindful of their breathing and teaches them about the mind-body connection,” Avila said.
Infinite Love, a meditation center in Edinburg, also helps people develop this mind-body connection.
“Even me,” said Saju Vaswani, co-founder of the nonprofit organization. “When I feel overwhelmed, I lie down, put on meditation music and just breathe. It is amazing how much better I feel.”
The organization currently offers sessions on their Facebook page during a time of the center’s closure. Vaswani and her cofounders also engage speakers from around the world, and share their workshops and speaking engagements on the site.
“Everyone needs to find something to bring them back to center,” Vaswani said. “We are often living in the future, worrying about what lies ahead. We need to live in the now and get to know who we are and what we are, and you find that in silence.”