When Science Goes Against What Your Body Knows, This Can Help

by | Dec 17, 2023 | Anxiety | 27 comments

Two of the hallmarks of the highly sensitive person are the need for certainty and struggling with self-doubt. These two challenges dovetail when considering a new course of action or making a big decision: Should I take medication? Should I do CBT or try another approach for particular issue? What do the studies show?

It’s normal to seek out studies when making decisions of this nature, but at the end of the day we must act according to our own self-trust if we’re going to be in alignment with our true values. However, when the statistics are contradicting our own experience, this can cause trouble.

To CBT or Not to CBT

This conundrum arose on a group call for my 9-month course a few weeks ago when a member was sharing about how her experience with doing CBT for her sleep struggles was quite different from what the science said. As she explained (shared with permission):

“I find myself spiraling when there’s contradictions between what the ‘science says’ and what my wise self says – or what two people that I respect say. For example, I dealt with some insomnia about a year ago. I tried the CBT method and it made it much worse for me. What worked for me was just getting comfortable laying in bed and relaxing in bed rather than getting up every 20 minutes, which made me crazy.

“Recently I was reading a psychology textbook and it was talking about how so much research supports the CBT method and it supports getting out of bed every 20 minutes if you’re not sleeping. Even though I know that’s not true for me it still messed me up reading that. That’s one example of hearing contradictions and not trusting myself.”

I responded by focusing on how we’re raised in environments where we’re conditioned to abdicate self-trust instead of being raised in a way that encourages us to trust our own bodies and what we know to be true. I talked about how some things might be helpful for some people but that there isn’t one thing that works for everyone. I hoped I was helpful, but I sensed that there might be a missing piece.

A few hours later, another member emailed me with a brilliant offering that I knew would not only be helpful to the member but also to many others in this community who struggle when there’s a difference of opinion or when they read something that is touted as verified “fact” yet goes against their own lived experience. With grateful permission, I’m sharing what she sent here.

***

I am someone who often does everything I can to seek out certainty over just being with the vulnerability of being human. That said, you often say that sometimes we do need some information as a starting place. One place that I think most people could use more information is about how social research, particularly quantitative statistical research, actually works, what it can tell us, and what it can’t.

I teach and use statistics, and I love teaching and using statistics, and I also have very complicated feelings about statistics, what it can tell us, and how it has and continues to be misused or misunderstood.

It’s very easy to interpret a statement about what the data, research, or science says “works” and take it to mean that if we do that thing, we will have the same, good outcome. At its core, this sets us up to expect a certain fix, a cure, and to blame ourselves if it doesn’t work. But this isn’t what mainstream research does – it cannot tell us what will happen to us with certainty, as much as we wish it could.

There are two particularly important things I want to share with anyone struggling when the science doesn’t seem to fit their own experience.

Identifying the Average

First, most quantitative statistical research focuses on identifying the average. We look for what works on average. For example, if you have 50 people use the hypothetical Gold Standard method to treat insomnia and 50 people do something else, it might be that – on average – the Gold Standard folks report more improved sleep than the something-else group. This does not mean that everyone in the Gold Standard group improved and that everyone in the something-else group stayed the same. In fact, it’s certainly possible (maybe likely) that some individuals have the opposite reaction to the average, with some doing worse in the Gold Standard group and some improving in the something-else group.

The average can also mask a lot – it can show up because 2 people out of the 50 in the Gold Standard group were completely cured and everyone else was unaffected, or it could be that everyone in the Gold Standard group saw marginal improvements (some studies do provide this kind of breakdown, which can help temper expectations).

There are certainly a wide range of statistical methods that do things besides just look at the average, and an even wider array of research tools completely separate from the narrow approach of quantitative statistics, but the average approach is widely used and tends to be what gets the most attention. “The Gold Standard works for some people but not others” is already more nuance than we want when we’re looking for certainty.

Fundamentally, the average is a number used to describe the center of a whole, varied group. It may not even accurately describe any one person in that group, let alone everyone in it.

In fact, a key reason we look at averages in the first place is because of all of the factors we cannot control or even observe that shape individual experiences. Oddly enough, the use of averages is an admission that individuals are complex and varied and that their unique contexts shape their experiences in ways we could never fully and completely account for on their own. Taking the average flattens some of this nuance, which has both benefits and drawbacks – it lets some patterns emerge while hiding others.

The Gold Standard Depends on Comparisons

Second, quantitative statistical testing depends on comparison. To say that the Gold Standard “works” is an incomplete statement. It “works,” on average, compared to “something else.” The Gold Standard method may be better at improving sleep, on average, compared to…business as usual, ignoring the problem, getting a pamphlet about sleep studies, or compared to other therapeutic modalities. It doesn’t mean it works the best, period. It means it’s the best at improving sleep, on average, compared to the things we’ve compared it to in scientific studies.

I’m willing to bet that there aren’t any studies that use dialogue journaling with your wise self or putting your feet in the grass and thanking Mother Earth for a new day as the comparison groups 🙂

On today’s call, you used the phrase “placing authority in somebody else’s hands.” I think it can be helpful to know a little bit more about one set of those hands. Research is presented as so cut and dry, and culturally it seems like we’re all pitted as either believing or not believing in science. Research is amazingly nuanced. It can tell us some things, it can’t tell us others. It gets things wrong, and at its best, learns from it. Research is driven by the infinity of unanswered questions. Research is human.

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27 Comments

  1. It’s no surprise that I love this, and find it very comforting. Our *own experience* is one of the most important forms of evidence.

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    • Yes, I thought of you when posting this and knew that you would love it :).

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    • Beautiful information!!!

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  2. As an addition, everything you’ve said is VERY helpful for people who don’t do well on standardised tests in an educational/cognitive setting, and then worry that they are ‘stupid’. It’s crucial to know that these tests work as you’ve outlined above.

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  3. WOW. Thank you so much to the person who wrote this, and to you, Sheryl, for sharing it! I am currently making a decision about a personal stylist to work with (I’ve been feeling stuck in my personal clothing/appearance style for years and I have a feeling grounding into a style that feels good will make me feel more grounded throughout my days), and I had a gut feeling yesterday of someone I wanted to work with. It doesn’t make sense next to some logical standards I had set up for myself, and I was – just before reading this article – doing some “additional research” from “experts” even though my gut says I already found the right person. Reading this helps me settle into my gut.

    😊 Thank you! ❤️

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  4. My naturopath very wisely said that “science only gives us the answers to the questions we ask.” This makes so much sense, and I agree very much about the lack of nuance in “you believe in science or you don’t.” In fact, I very much believe in science, but I also feel that science ends up being very rigid, even though the purpose of it is to literally question EVERYTHING- including what science says is “fact.” How many things over hundreds of years have been disproven but were considered fact? This isn’t to say there aren’t “facts.” I think the things that have been researched over and over and over again over hundreds of years with the same result can probably be called fact, but a lot of new sciences still need to go through a lot of questioning. I’ve thought about this a lot because my dad talks a lot about the science of how meat is bad for humans (he actually said “everyone’s body works this way” about a particular part of it). I think the reason there are studies that say it’s good for humans and that say it’s bad for humans is because it may be very good for some humans and very bad for some others. It’s not either/or. Same when people say there is no connection between trauma and OCD. I have a very strong “NO” reaction when I hear that. Maybe there’s no connection for some people, but I don’t believe from my own experience that there is no connection. The fact that literally every intrusive thought fear I have has a direct thru-line to stuff my grandmother said and did does not feel like a coincidence. And while I don’t buy into ERP being the “Gold Standard”, as in the only treatment for OCD, I still do it because I need someone to help push me out of avoidance, which is probably my most pervasive compulsion. But at the same time I’m doing parts work and taking your courses because I know ERP by itself is not enough. It’s more like a nudge.

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    • In my view, trauma and OCD can ABSOLUTELY be related!

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    • Wonderful comment, thank you.

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    • Any time I hear a clinician start talking about psychiatric conditions in absolute terms, I have to fight the urge to roll my eyes. This field of study is SO young and we are only barely beginning to understand it. Any scientist worth their salt will feel no shame in admitting just how in the dark humanity still is when it comes to the brain.

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  5. I love and endorse all of this. As an empirical psychological researcher I am very familiar with the benefits and limitations of statistics – especially in the social and psychological sciences, where – as the author of this post says – there are so many variables and individual differences that cannot easily be controlled for. It is important to pay attention to scientific evidence, take it seriously, analyse it critically, but it is also important to remember that it is not the only pathway to truth – especially truth about our own psyche. My own experience has been that science has helped me enormously in some areas, but what has helped my soul most in times of real darkness has been the individual, non-evidence-based wisdom of a wise fellow traveller attuning to me with kindness and curiosity – and learning to grow that wise elder within myself too.

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    • This post, and everyone’s thoughtful and articulate responses, fill my soul. There are few things more painful than being in the midst of darkness, then having a professional make you doubt the very few threads of self trust that remain. I have never responded well to “gold standard” OCD treatment or CBT in general- and this “failure” has only added to my pain at times. Thank you all for engaging in the nuance of all of this. I appreciate this community.

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  6. Another thing I would add here (acknowledging this isn’t about proving what is ‘right’ as we are noting the importance of that being known only to us) is that the efficacy of so-called ‘gold-standard’ ‘evidence-based’ CBT therapies has been called into question scientifically, too. So it isn’t just a case of us being the odd ones out if it isn’t effective for us – these treatments don’t (generally speaking) have a long-term efficacy when looked at beyond 6 weeks.
    I feel like these catchy terms (like ‘gold-standard’) provide the feeling of a scientific stamp of approval, and pair that with the cheap price of delivery and ‘quick fix’ nature that is appealing to healthcare systems, they’ve understandably become widespread (and convince us that it is all in our heads :)). But I do feel like they hide the complexity and mystery of distress and the healing process that is many-layered, relationship and nature-based, holistic, and rooted in trust in and knowledge of ourselves. And love for ourselves! But of course they do provide good short-term benefits and, for many, long-term too.

    Psychotherapist Jonathan Shedler has done incredible work in digging into the actual efficacy of CBT as well as psychotherapy (which many decide is too fluffy and long-winded and not so much research exists on). You can read these great papers here ‘Where is the evidence for evidence-based therapy?’ https://jonathanshedler.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Shedler-2018-Where-is-the-evidence-for-evidence-based-therapy.pdf and ‘The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy’ here: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-65-2-98.pdf or listen to a podcast episode with Jonathan on This Jungian Life where he discusses this too: https://thisjungianlife.com/episode-184-does-analysis-work-a-conversation-with-jonathan-shedler-phd/

    Hope that is helpful to anyone reading 🙂

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    • Thanks for this. Regardless of modality, I think an open mind is one of the true hallmarks of a good psychotherapist, and a recognition that their way (whatever that is) is not the *only* way.

      I also recommend the book ‘Obsessions’ by psychoanalysis Francesco Bisagni, although I can’t say it’s written for a general audience – it is very technical!

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      • Yes totally, If only there were a wider selection of therapies and therapists available in health services (not in the UK anyway) and people could find what works for them rather than be prescribed the ‘only way’. Thanks 🙂

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  7. This post came at the perfect time—thank you!
    The points made here are especially true considering I have just discovered I’m not only “highly sensitive” but neurodivergent, and no studies control for that! We are all built differently 🙂

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  8. Oh wow. This post hit home. I felt a pull to work with human psyche and so embarked on a journey to become a (clinical) psychologist a couple years ago. Then reality of academia struck time after time and I’ve felt SO lonely with my “self-knowledge” in an environment that is so hell-bent on science it sometimes completely misses that being a human is also way more than that… There are many things in the academic psychology field that make my blood boil. Particularly how questioning is the foundation of science, but then it feels like said questioning is not allowed.

    Many times I’ve pondered quitting, but haven’t. Sometimes, when I feel self-assured and secure, I think I could be the change I wish to see and bring something more to the field. This might sound self important, but I know I am very smart and can justify my views pretty well.

    But oftentimes, I feel so anxious it isn’t healthy. I’ve taken breaks from my studies and worked in a completely different setting for a while. I’ve had a burnout.

    I just want a career where I can dive deep into the human condition and help people the best I can while keeping my integrity and self-knowing. However, Sheryl’s resources have made me feel that the challenge is in fact deeper than this particular question of pursuing a career in psychology or not… It’s a question of self-trust. That’s my main mission now. And for now, there is something worthwhile in psychology too (how do I know? I felt scared to write this message, as I fear someone will come and say I’m stupid for sticking out and should just leave… fears similar to relationship anxiety, lol)

    “Research is human”. That’s a wonderful conclusion.

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    • Hi Carla

      If you do end up pursuing a career as a clinical psychologist, then I think that would be a wonderful thing, as you sound very human and thoughtful, and lord knows academic psychology needs those attributes very very badly!

      Wishing you all the best

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      • Thank you for the encouragement Joshua!! It really made my day. For now, I try to ”live the questions” and see where it takes me. Easier said than done. Wishing you all the best as well.

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  9. The very first thing this topic made me think of is my recent and ongoing battle with “do I sleep-train my child (in the current & trendy sense of the word) — I have literally cried dozens of times over this because SOOO many people all around are absolutely CERTAIN its the only way to get your baby to “self-sooth” and learn independent sleep. The current view of sleep training is either a cry-it-out or a gentle cry-it-out (both of which feel wrong to me in many, many ways.)
    So the battle has been – trust my instincts or trust the supposed science that says these methods won’t harm your child.
    So far, no matter the absolute sheer exhaustion and routine nervous breakdowns I have because of it, I have not given in to the cry-it-out. It simply goes back to listening to my maternal instincts rather than what current science says. Would love others’ thoughts on this topic….. I’ve actually contemplated emailing you about if Jungian philosophy has anything to say about “sleep training”, Sheryl! But didn’t know if it’s really relevant to your oeuvre.

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    • Trust your instincts, Natalie. That’s what women have been doing for thousands of years.

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  10. This is so relevant in an era when the collective social narrative of an entire species—and a particularly socially conscious and emotionally-driven one at that—has been made freely accessible and reproducible (I’m talking about the Internet, in case that wasn’t clear, lol). As humans we have always been reliant upon a dominant consensus to fuel our sense of emotional security. There’s nothing wrong with that! We’re primates with highly integrated limbic systems! It’s who we are! However, the sheer amount of “consensus” that is available to us at any given moment at this point in history is more than even our sophisticated brains are capable of absorbing. And since it’s hard for us to see a pattern of interpretation and not imbue it with infallibility, it is now easier than ever to dismiss the wisdom of our core selves in favor of the permission of a collective narrative–whether that is based on statistics, peer-reviewed scientific studies or reviews on Amazon. These sources of information have value, no question, BUT they aren’t meant to outrank personal experience. And I’d venture to say that they are not the kind of information the anxious mind is capable of accurately understanding. According to the way the “stats” are interpreted by the anxious mind I shouldn’t get married (because there’s a high chance I’ll get divorced), shouldn’t have children after the age of thirty-five (because there’s a decent chance it’ll be difficult or it will kill them or me and if by some miracle we all survive they’ll just grow up and be unhappy anyway), and definitely shouldn’t devote any time or energy to pursuing art as a career (because….like, come on). What a dismal, narrow world we create for ourselves when we live by what the numbers *appear* to be telling us.

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    • So beautifully and wisely expressed as always, Niamh. Thank you.

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  11. What an important post. Thank you for writing this. So important for those working on their mental and emotional health, especially with so many articles/experts using terms like “Gold-Standard” and “The Key to Anxiety or OCD recovery is XYZ”. I’d argue this post should be Global News – as it’s perspective needs shared across the world. It’s not that using science data and stats are “wrong”, it’s that relying on them as absolutes can lead to unnecessary suffering

    Reply

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