WEDNESDAY, Dec. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Instant communication may
be all the rage, but old-fashioned letter-writing may have a more
beneficial lasting effect on recipients.
In a study involving soldiers serving in war zones, most in
Iraq, researchers found that letters from home -- just a few words
from the heart, scribbled onto paper or typed into an email --
served as an inoculation against one of war's most insidious and
long-lasting wounds. Recipients were less likely to exhibit
symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Those positive, permanent forms of communication may have mental health benefits," said Benjamin Loew, a graduate research assistant in the psychology department at the University of Denver who co-authored the study, published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.
More "instant" forms of communication, such as telephone calls
or video chats, did not have the same positive effect on soldiers'
mental well-being as the receipt of written communication or even
care packages, the study found.
One theory why this is the case, according to the researchers,
is that people tend to think through what they write in a letter
and are less likely to be argumentative and more free to share
affection and other positive feelings.
"These delayed forms of communication are going to be protected from conflict-type discussion," Loew said.
Letters also serve as mementos that soldiers can carry with them
as a reminder of home.
"A soldier could repeatedly pull out a letter or an e-mail and feel support," Loew said. "A phone call can be recalled but can't be re-experienced. A letter can be read over and over again."
That makes perfect sense to Marion Frank, a Philadelphia
psychologist and past president of the Philadelphia chapter of the
Gold Star Wives of America, an organization for military widows and
"There is more thought that goes into writing, versus a call or a text message," Frank said. She also agrees that a letter's value as a memento likely adds to its value in helping soldiers cope with their circumstances.
"When we have something from a loved one, it has meaning and it gives us comfort," she said.
Such physical forms of communication can help even if a person
isn't in the high-stress environment of combat, Frank said.
Letters, cards and emails can help bolster the spirits and possibly
reduce the stress of family and friends who are away at college or
on an extended business trip, for instance.
"It certainly helps if you're leaving a loved one," Frank said. "When people send a memento or a card, it helps the person feel connected to home. It's the whole idea behind the greeting card industry."
However, Frank said such letters would probably not have the
same effect as those received by people in the sort of high-risk,
high-stress, life-threatening situations that can produce
"That's when you're in danger in terms of your life," she said. "In civilian life, letters and cards won't prevent stress from happening, but they can be helpful in reducing stress for people who have left a loved one."
But for those in the military, the aftereffects of trauma can be
"What people are doing in the service often exposes them to traumatic experiences," Frank said. "Even if they have this kind of concrete support, they could still suffer PTSD."
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a form of anxiety brought on
by exposure to a horrific, life-changing or traumatizing event,
according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Symptoms can
include reliving the event in your mind, avoiding things that
remind you of the event, feeling numb to the world around you or
becoming jittery, keyed-up and on a hair trigger.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that PTSD
afflicts nearly 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf
War (Desert Storm) veterans, 11 percent of veterans of Afghanistan
fighting and 20 percent of Iraq war veterans.
For the study, the research team surveyed 193 married Army
soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., who had returned in the past year
from an overseas tour that included combat. They evaluated each
soldier for PTSD symptoms, their exposure to combat and their
marital satisfaction. They also quizzed each soldier on the
frequency and types of communication they had received from home
while they were deployed.
They found that happily married soldiers who received frequent
communication that the team described as delayed -- letters,
emails, care packages -- had fewer PTSD symptoms than those who'd
received more instant communications, such as phone calls, video
chats and instant messages.
But they also detected one scenario in which letters from home
Soldiers in unhappy marriages who communicated often by delayed
means tended to have more PTSD symptoms, the study found.
"We don't know if the communications are more negative, or if it reflects a soldier doing a lot of writing home and not getting anything in return," Loew said.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on