Long-Distance Mental Health Booster

March 12, 2012
Daily Health News
Ben Loew, MA

Being in a long-distance relationship with someone you love—whether it’s a spouse, a sibling or a child who has gone off to work, to study or even to fight in a war—can be very stressful, especially for the person who is far away from home.

Since it’s the 21st century and we have all sorts of incredibly fast technology at our fingertips, it may seem logical to use, say, video chatting, online instant messaging or cell-phone texting to stay in touch.

But here’s a surprise. A new study suggests that something else actually brings the most comfort to the person who is away from home—a regular old e-mail message or, yes, an honest-to-God old-fashioned letter, written on paper, and physically mailed. You may remember such things from the last century! But why would this be?

The research was done at the University of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver and was published in June 2011 in Journal of Traumatic Stress. To learn more, I called study coauthor Ben Loew, MA, graduate research assistant at the University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies.

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Loew and his colleagues studied soldiers, but what they uncovered seems intriguing and useful for people in any sort of extended absence. The 193 soldiers, average age 29, had participated in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan and had returned home within the past year. Each soldier had been married for at least one year and had left a spouse at home in the US during deployment.

Researchers questioned the returned soldiers on which types of communication devices the couples used to communicate with each other and how often they had communicated during deployment using each type. They noted whether each form of communication was “instant” (such as with phone calls, instant messaging or video chatting) or “delayed” (such as with e-mails, paper letters and other things sent by physical mail, such as gifts and care packages). Then they examined how much each solider was bothered by symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the past month and how satisfied the soldiers felt in their marriages.

The results: Among soldiers who reported above-average marital satisfaction, the more that they had communicated with their spouses during deployment using “delayed” forms of communication, the less they experienced symptoms of PTSD after deployment. But the same association was not seen in soldiers who had used “instant” forms of communication. The fact that delayed communications may have had a greater positive impact certainly surprised Loew, but when we discussed why that may have made such a big difference, it started to make more sense.


I asked Loew what he thought was at play here, and he cited a few potential factors…

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  • Higher-quality content: Letters and e-mails allow more time for thought than instant communications. People who write them, said Loew, are more likely to think carefully about each word and possibly even edit themselves before sending the note. Writing out one’s viewpoint allows each person to complete a point without interruption and enables a better understanding of each other’s perspective. The content tends to be more deliberate and calm—it’s a lot easier to fire off an insult or respond too quickly if you’re calling, texting or using instant chat, since with those forms of communication, there is more pressure to reply in a rush. Loew added that the person receiving the communication also may recognize that writing a long e-mail or letter or taking the time to buy a gift or create a care package requires more effort than more “instant” forms of communication—so “delayed” communication may feel like a sign of greater support.
  • Permanence: We don’t tend to record our phone calls or purposely save our instant chats or text messages and re-experience them over and over again—but we often will do that with an e-mail message or a letter. When the content makes us feel happy or calm or just more connected, we can stuff a letter into a pocket and reread it any time—ditto for a printed-out e-mail message.
  • Anticipation. Past studies on happiness have shown that when you know something exciting is coming in the future and you’re forced to wait for it, that period of looking forward to it can bring you comfort and a sense of joyful anticipation.

Though this study looked only at soldiers and their spouses, Loew imagines that this theory would apply to people in other sorts of long-distance relationships, and that makes sense to me. So before you call or text your loved one who is far away, you might want to pick up paper and pen to write a letter or turn to your computer and carefully craft an e-mail that expresses how much you care about that person—and do it often!