Why a trip to the cottage is the perfect remedy for stress and anxiety

a-canoe-on-the-lake-haliburton-ontario Photo by Brian Lasenby/Shutterstock

It happens every time—you hop in your car after what seems like 15 trips back to the house to get everything you need for the weekend: the groceries, the bedding you brought home to wash, your clothes, your favourite books. (Oh, and don’t forget your cell phone charger!) For a second, you wonder if it’s all worth it. Your muscles are feeling tense from a long week at work and all this packing isn’t helping. But you’ve made it this far, you think to yourself, so you turn the keys, set your favourite playlist and begin heading north. It doesn’t take long to remember why a trip to the cottage seemed like such a good idea in the first place. As the skyscrapers drop out of sight and the road opens up, the muscles in your back start to relax. 

No matter how much we try to relax in the middle of the city—whether it’s enjoying a long brunch, wandering around a new art exhibit, or even heading to the spa—nothing helps us unwind like a trip to the lake. That combination of being in nature, at the water’s edge, engaging in physical activity, disconnecting from technology, and doing so around the ones you love is the ideal recipe for stress relief—and there’s a ton of research to prove it.

Forest scenes can lower stress, anxiety, and blood pressure

Nature scene
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Research shows that nature is a natural stress-buster. So much so that physicians have actually started prescribing people suffering from stress, anxiety and other ailments with more time in natural environments. This is hardly a new concept in Japan, where people have long practiced a ritual known as Shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing” to heal from the stress of modern life.

A huge portion of the country’s population engages in this practice, making special trips to the woods to decompress. And it’s not simply a trend: A 2010 study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that those who engaged in leisurely walks through the forest experienced a decrease in cortisol, sympathetic nerve activity, blood pressure and heart rate. In more subjective tests, participants also reported better moods and lower levels of anxiety.

The wilder, the better

A walk through your local park will certainly help you relax, but new evidence suggests the wilder the environment is, the better. A study published in Behavioural Sciences by researchers at Indiana and Illinois State universities measured how three different “levels of nature”—a wilderness setting, an urban park, and an indoor exercise club—affected people’s stress levels. Although visitors to all three sites reported a decrease in worries and demands, visitors to the wilderness area were the only ones who showed a significant decrease in cortisol levels.

But being next to water has an even more powerful effect

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So we can see why a few-hour drive up the highway may be more beneficial than a few-minute walk down the street (especially if you can avoid rush-hour traffic). But it’s not simply the sight of un-manicured foliage that makes the cottage the ideal setting to de-compress—it’s being next to the water.

We’re certain there’s no cottager who would dispute this fact, or need science to tell them about the sense of calm that can wash over you while watching waves gently lap against the rocks along the shoreline. What’s interesting to note, though, is that it can have a much more powerful effect than the trees. Researchers have found that although “green” environments can have a positive impact on self-esteem and mood, those with open water lead to much greater improvements in mental health.

Get active in these environments and you’ll feel better almost immediately 

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If sitting in natural environments is good for you, then just imagine what getting active in nature can do. It’s no secret that exercise is good for you, mentally and physically. Exercise not only reduces our bodies’ levels of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, it also stimulates the production of feel-good neurotransmitters known as endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood elevators. And according to research published in the journal of Environmental Health & Technology, exercising in natural areas can improve your mood and self-esteem (effectively lowering stress and anxiety) in as little as five minutes. Jogging down your favourite trail, going for an early morning dip, heck, even chopping wood will do the trick. But slow, repetitive paddle sports like canoeing and kayaking can add an extra dose of mindfulness to your morning workout.

Disconnecting also has huge benefits

Group of friends
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It’s getting harder than ever to find places without cell service. Fortunately, even if there are towers nearby, there’s something about the cottage—the change in environment, being in tighter quarters, or cooking meals together—that reminds people to put their phones down. And taking the time to disconnect, even temporarily, can have huge benefits for your well-being.

According to Dr. Nancy Cheever, who spearheaded research on the relationship between cellphone use and anxiety at California State University, the more people use their phone, the more anxious they are about using their phone. Which means those of us who are connected to our devices are operating in a persistent state of anxiety, and the only relief is to keep checking our phones—or break the loop by heading somewhere with spotty service. Sure, it can be anxiety inducing at first. But those feelings of panic will gradually turn to acceptance and, soon enough, total bliss.

Because it allows you to connect with yourself—and others

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When you’re feeling stressed and anxious, you may be craving a weekend of solitude—nothing but you, your coffee, a good book and the diving loons across the lake. When it’s on your own terms, being alone with no devices, and no one else to talk to, can dampen emotions and increase feelings of positivity, calm and anxiety. But a few extra weekend visitors is certainly no reason to cancel your plans. In fact, having the chance to socialize with loved ones in a technology-free environment, away from the stresses of day-to-day life, can be just as good for you.

In a landmark study published in the journal of Science, researchers found that social connections generated a positive feedback loop of emotional and physical well-being, leading to lower levels of anxiety and higher self-esteem. But these feelings have little to do with the number of people you’re connected to—they’re all about how connected you feel to people. And nothing will make you feel more connected to others than singing a song or sharing a perfectly toasted marshmallow around a campfire.

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