Debra Dunstan and Nicole Turner want to hurt you. Afterwards, they’ll give you a cup of tea and a biscuit – and ask you how it felt.
No, they’re not sadists. They’re researchers, and their work has potential benefits for millions of sufferers of chronic pain worldwide. But first, 100 brave souls have to front up and enter their “room of pain”.
Ms Turner, a fourth-year psychology student at the University of New England, is studying the link between emotional intelligence and adaptive responses to pain. Specifically, she wants to find out whether people high in emotional intelligence – the ability to adaptively perceive, understand and regulate emotions – are better at handling pain than others. If they are, then that’s good news for people suffering from chronic pain, since many of the skills associated with emotional intelligence can be learned.
“What we do know about pain is that the physical component is only one part of the experience of pain,” said Dr Debra Dunstan, the clinical psychologist supervising the study. “The emotional and psychological aspects of pain are equally important.”
Dr Dunstan gave the example of a professional footballer playing in a grand final, who might not even be aware of an injury until after the game due to the emotions involved.
“Different people will react differently to the same physical experience of pain, depending on the situation and their psychological makeup,” she said.
The purpose of the experiment she and Ms Turner would be conducting was to identify traits common to those people who handled pain well, she said. Participants will be led to a room, where, after completing a questionnaire, they will be exposed to experimentally-induced pain that creates painful, but harmless, sensations in their arm. Afterwards, they will be given a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit and asked to describe how the pain felt.
Dr Dunstan emphasised that the procedure was totally safe and said participants would be in complete control of the pain’s duration and free to end the experiment at any time. The levels of pain involved fell well within safe medical criteria, she said, adding that a list of referral numbers would be supplied in the unlikely event a participant’s discomfort continued after the experiment had ended.
Dr Dunstan and Ms Turner hope to recruit a range of people for the study, including people who are scared of pain, as well as those who are less afraid. Participants will initially be restricted to people working and studying at UNE’s Armidale campus.
“We’d really like it if people unnerved by the idea of experiencing pain turn up, along with the braver ones, since these are the people we’re trying to help,” Dr Dunstan said.
Those interested in participating in the study should contact Nicole Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0411 085 999.