The study, which is among the first to examine the effects of written expression via email on health, is also unique in that it was conducted by an undergraduate in the university's psychology department.
Texas A&M psychology major Erin Brown, working alongside psychology professor William Graziano and graduate student Brad Sheese, found that participants who wrote emails about their traumatic emotional experiences were healthier in the weeks following their writings than were those who wrote about non-emotional topics.
A university Honors Fellows program, which provides undergraduates an opportunity to conduct research in a post-graduate setting, gave Brown the chance to conduct the study, which was accepted for presentation at the American Psychological Association, in Chicago in August.
"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 email," Brown says.
Participants reported being sick for significantly fewer days than their counterparts and were less likely to miss class because of an illness, according to the study, which looked at about 150 college students.
"Overall, these results suggest that even when administered through e-mail, the emotional writing treatment still produces positive health outcomes," Brown notes.
While she points out that more research is needed comparing the effects of e-mail writing assignments versus supervised in-lab assignments, Brown believes that the fact treatments work via e-mail is significant.
Similar writing treatments, which have been widely adopted in a variety of settings including hospices, outplacement facilities, support groups and even freshmen orientations at major universities, could reach a new level of convenience in the email form, she notes.
"It makes future implementation of such treatments easier for both the individuals giving the assignments and for the participants," she says. "Email administration requires fewer resources as well as possibly providing people with a more comfortable atmosphere in which to write about their experiences."
Brown is working on replicating the study's finding on a larger, 500-person sample, which she believes will yield similar results. She plans to continue to work on analysis of her data after graduation.