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E-mail Your Way to Better Health

April 26, 2002

Could e-mail be just what the doctor ordered?

Maybe so, according to new research that found people who use e-mail to discuss life's emotional upsets tend to be healthier.

Students at Texas A&M University who wrote e-mails about their "traumatic emotional experiences" were sick for fewer days, missed fewer classes and reported better overall health than students who didn't discuss upsetting events, but wrote instead about a movie they saw or the events of their day.

The study was conducted by senior psychology major Erin Brown, who worked under the guidance of psychology professor William Graziano.

The research has been accepted for presentation at the American Psychological Association's conference in Chicago in August, according to university officials.

About 150 students were asked to write 500-word e-mails to the researchers from their home or dorm computers for three days in a row, Brown says. Half chosen at random wrote about "traumatic emotional experiences," while the rest wrote about non-emotional topics.

For five weeks, all the study participants filed weekly health reports detailing the number of times they had missed classes due to illness, visited the doctor, taken over-the-counter medications or simply felt sick, Brown says. They also filled out health assessments at the beginning and end of the study.

Participants who wrote about their emotional experiences were less likely to suffer from respiratory distress and the common cold, Graziano says, and made fewer trips to the school infirmary.

The definition of what constituted a "traumatic emotional experience" was left up to the participants, Brown says: "What's traumatic to you is kind of relative."

Brown says an example of a traumatic experience could be going off to college for the first time. Another example, Graziano says, might be getting held up at gunpoint.

The researchers can't say why the people sending e-mails about their troubles enjoyed better health, Graziano says.

However, he speculates, "The symptoms that improved are the kinds of things that might be affected by stress. The kinds of things suffered by typically healthy people who weren't feeling well."

Says Brown: "It seems that people have always known that talking or writing about their problems helps them feel better, at least psychologically. The study we did provides empirical evidence that written emotional expression is also beneficial to physical health, even when conducted through e-mail."

And given the convenience of e-mail, it could make such treatments easier, Brown says.

Brown and Graziano say they'd originally planned to replicate studies by University of Texas psychology professor Jamie Pennebaker, who found people had better health when they wrote out their problems longhand in an experimental setting, such as a school laboratory.

But the A&M researchers had trouble finding lab space to conduct their experiment and ended up deciding to see whether e-mail written from home would be just as effective.

"We were concerned that people would not take it as seriously if they participated from home," Brown says. "But everybody uses e-mail now. Personally, I'm more comfortable going in and writing somebody on e-mail than sitting in a room writing something down on paper."

Brown plans to replicate the study on a larger, 500-person sample and will continue analyzing her data after graduation.

What To Do: To learn more about the effects of stress on health, visit The American Institute of Stress. For tips on reducing or controlling stress, check the National Mental Health Association.

By Dennis Thompson Jr. Copyright © 2002 ScoutNews, LLC.


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