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Finding solace in nature

BYUH ohana say the sights, sounds, scents and slow pace of nature improve people’s emotional and mental health

Zaphnath-Paaneah Antonio Villanueva smiles for the camera.
Photo by Sugarmaa Bataa (Kendra)

With the advancement of technology, it’s easy to become disconnected from nature, says Dr. Gregory Bratman. Yet, throughout history, humans have sought solace in the outdoors, explains Bratman, an associate professor and director of the environmental lab at the University of Washington. Moreover, a study at Stanford University says walking and enjoying the company of nature lowers the risk of depression, increases happiness and yields measurable mental benefits for a person.

Natural therapy

Bratman, who is also a director of forest sciences at UW, says in a Stanford study that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban settings. This number is projected to rise to 70 percent within a few decades, he says. As urbanization and disconnection from nature have increased dramatically, he shares, so have mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Bratman’s research supports a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which says people who walked for 90 minutes in natural areas, as opposed to those who walked in high-traffic urban settings, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression. “Results suggest that accessible natural areas are vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” says Gretchen Daily, a Bing professor and an American environmental scientist in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s article.

A body of water with little hills of green grass and rocks spread out in the middle of it.
The greenery of the foundation’s lands is highlighted by its reflection on its accompanying ponds.
Photo by Sugarmaa Bataa (Kendra)

Our need for nature

Zaphnath-Paaneah Antonio Villanueva, a BYU–Hawaii alumnus from the Philippines who works as a restoration and environmental science assistant at the Malama Loko Ea Foundation, said serving his mission in the Vanuatu Port Vila Mission helped him love and appreciate nature. He said Vanuatu was a big contrast from the busy city he grew up in. He said transferring from a fast-paced place to a slow, calming place helped him recognize his interests in nature. He enjoyed seeing people live a simple life while having their jobs relate to taking care of nature, he said. His mission experiences were the inspiration behind his choice to study marine biology at BYUH, he said.

Villanueva said his bachelor’s degree helped him study ways to cultivate and protect nature, especially in Hawaii. After graduation, he said he saw an opportunity to expand his love for nature by working for the Malama Loko Ea Foundation in Haleiwa. He said the foundation is a non-profit organization that helps perpetuate native Hawaiian culture through education, land stewardship and community building while sustainably restoring natural resources.

He said he provides tours to students visiting the place and collects water samples, reeds, Hawaiian stripe mullets and other native Hawaiian fish. He added he also takes care of the natural habitat that surrounds his workplace. His experiences at work have allowed him to develop a sustainable life where he gives back and takes care of nature, he said.

The endangered Hawaiian gallinule, a goose-like bird with black feathers and a red beak, walks across the grass.
The endangered Hawaiian gallinule living on the Malama Loko Ea Foundation’s lands.
Photo by Sugarmaa Bataa (Kendra)

A stress relief

Corina Chan Nok Ching, a freshman majoring in psychology from Hong Kong, said being in nature helps people appreciate their minds and find comfort. She said she read in an article by Scientific Reports that says spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being. She said this research helped her value being outside and enjoying nature as much as possible.

Villanueva said being close to plants enhances a person’s well-being and improves one’s mood. He said pleasant odors from plants in nature are a form of aromatherapy, reducing stress and anxiety and promoting relaxation. He added the majority of the plants have pheromones that emit a fragrant odor that helps soothe and uplift people by just smelling them.

Ching shared the contrast between serving her mission in England, where she said the sun does not shine very often, to studying in Hawaii. She said she appreciates Hawaii because the lush greenery around the campus makes it easier for her to do her schoolwork outside and enjoy the company of nature. She said besides the greenery around campus, she enjoys hiking and exploring the beaches a stress relief around Oahu. Being exposed to nature helps her love the outdoors even more, she said, and she often encourages her friends to join her outdoor study sessions.

She said she learned how exposure to the outdoors helps people’s mental health from another article from the University of Exeter. Dr. Ben Wheeler, an associate professor in environment, health and inequalities at the same university, said, “Researchers emphasized that investing in improved public green spaces might bring mental health benefits to everyone, but particularly for those living in more deprived areas.” The article further explains when people look after and protect the natural environment around them, it will return the favor and give back to them.

Ching said her job as a tour guide at the Polynesian Cultural Center has also helped her appreciate the different greenery and natural environments in each village. She said enjoys learning about plants from around Polynesia and explaining them to PCC guests.

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