What Is Synesthesia Disorder And How To Cope With It

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated May 9, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

"What color is your seven?" It might seem like a strange question to ask, but If you have synesthesia, you may have an answer. If you or someone you know has a different way of experiencing the world through their senses, you could benefit from learning about what synesthesia is and how to cope with it.

What Is Synesthesia?

What is synesthesia? The word comes from ancient Greek and means "perceive together." It's a neurological condition in which one the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive area brings about another sensory or cognitive experience.

Synesthesia is out of the ordinary, but it's not considered a disorder, and it is not listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). Synesthesia causes few or no problems for most people who have it. It is atypical, but many synesthetes would object to its being called a disorder, because to them it's just a different way of experiencing life. Rather than wanting to stop having synesthesia, many people often say they would not know how to function without it.

Types of Synesthesia And Their Characteristics

There are two different types of synesthesia: projective and associative. Let’s take a look at their differences.

  • Projective synesthesia -- seeing actual colors, forms, or shapes after sensory or cognitive stimulation.
  • Associative synesthesia -- feeling a strong, involuntary connection between sensory and cognitive stimulation and colors, forms, or shapes.

Synesthesia can start three different ways:

  • Developmental, or genuine, synesthesia -- starts in birth or early childhood.
  • Acquired synesthesia -- happens after brain injury or after artificial technologies are used to create sensory substitution.
  • Drug-induced synesthesia – happens after taking a psychedelic or other drug.

Specific types of associations or projections in synesthesia include:

  • Grapheme-color synesthesia -- associating a letter or number with a color.
  • Sound-to-color synesthesia -- associating sounds with colors, usually colored shapes.
  • Number-form synesthesia -- visualizing a number map image when thinking of a number.
  • Ordinal-linguistic personification -- associating numbers, letters, months, and so forth with certain personality traits.
  • Lexical-gustatory synesthesia -- associating a word or phoneme with a certain taste.
  • Auditory-tactile synesthesia -- sounds elicit tactile sensations in various parts of the body.
  • Mirror-touch synesthesia -- when someone else touches something, you feel what they would feel.

Examples Of Synesthesia

The kinds of synesthetic experiences someone has depends on their type of synesthesia. Some examples of synesthesia are:

  • Seeing colorful music notes when you hear music.
  • Seeing all 7s as blue.
  • Seeing all As as red.
  • Seeing specific colored shapes when you hear a dog barking or a door being slammed.
  • Thinking of R as a shy or an evil letter.
  • Feeling the sound of trumpets as a brush on your calves.
  • Feeling a smooth surface when your friend touches a glass tabletop.

Who Has Synesthesia?

Synesthesia is fairly uncommon, and certain types of synesthesia are even rarer. The estimated rate of synesthesia varies depending on language and culture. Estimates have ranged from 1 in 25 to 1 in 100,000. The most respected study so far was from Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, and it showed the prevalence at 4.4% of the population. The most commonly quoted rate is 1 in 2000, as shown in a Cambridge study.

Synesthesia is more common in people with autism as well as artistic people, including visual artists, musicians, and actors. Famous people with synesthesia disorder include Billy Joel, Marilyn Monroe, Itzhak Perlman, Duke Ellington, Nikola Tesla, Mickey Hart (The Grateful Dead drummer), and Vincent Van Gogh.

How Is Synesthesia Diagnosed?

Several tests have been devised to discover whether someone has synesthesia. Many of these tests are time sensitive, meaning you have to answer quickly. Because they go so quickly, they reveal the automatic responses you have if you're a synesthete.

For example, if you select a specific color that you associate with a number once, and then select the same color for that number again very quickly, you show your automatic association between the two.

A neurologist named Richard Cytowic suggested the following diagnostic criteria for synesthesia:

  • The associations must be automatic and involuntary.
  • The synesthetic perceptions are consistent.
  • It's very easy to remember synesthesia experiences.
  • There is a great deal of emotion related to synesthesia.

What Causes Synesthesia?

No clear and singular cause has yet been discovered that explains why synesthesia happens. It can be induced by using psychedelic drugs. It can happen during the growth and development stages of childhood. You can acquire it later in life as well.

There may be a genetic component, as many people who have synesthesia also have one or more family members who have it. Brain structure and function are different in synesthetes. People with synesthesia typically have unusually high serotonin levels.

How To Cope With Synesthesia

Many people who have synesthesia feel that it's the most normal and natural thing in the world for them. They may have few or no problems functioning, and in fact, they may find that their synesthesia helps them function better and enhances their experiences.

However, that isn't true of everyone. If you have synesthesia, you may feel like it's something you have to be ashamed of or hide from others. You may have learned that the way you perceive things is different from others and fear that it is unacceptable.

Another problem some people with synesthesia experience is sensory overload. Because each stimulation elicits multiple sensations, they may have trouble in stimulating environments.

Educate Yourself

The first thing to do if you have synesthesia is learn all you can about it. The more you know, the better you'll understand that synesthesia is natural for you. When you become an expert on your condition, you will realize it doesn’t mean there’s anything "wrong" with you.

Accept Your Synesthesia As A Gift

Even if you're not happy about your synesthesia, it can be helpful to look for ways it improves your life. Does it help you enjoy music more fully? Does it help you remember things better? Does it enhance your emotional experiences? If you can see your synesthesia as a gift or talent, you can take advantage of what it brings to you.

Build Your Self-Esteem

Perhaps you have feared that because your synesthesia is not shared by most others, it makes you somehow inferior. If so, it's important to work on your self-esteem. Do things that you enjoy and feel proud to share with others. List your good qualities. Appreciate yourself, not only as a synesthete but also as a full person who is like others in some ways and unique in others.

Learn Techniques To Deal With Sensory Overload

If you do feel overwhelmed by your synesthetic experiences, you need to find a way to deal with the sensory overload when it happens. Many synesthetes practice meditation or deep breathing exercises when they want to limit outside stimulation. Talking to someone who has experience with synesthesia can be helpful as well, because they may have learned about techniques for getting away from too much outside input.

Share Your Unique Perspective

A person with synesthesia has a unique perspective. They have experiences to share that most others don’t. So share your special way of experiencing life with others who can only imagine it. You can do it through music, theater, writing, or other arts. Or you can simply describe what you see to a trusted friend. If you choose to do so, you can make life a little richer for others who don't share your gift. At the same time, you can find a way to express your unique vision.

Connect With Other Synesthetes

No one can understand someone with synesthesia in the same way as another person who has it. Connecting with other synesthetes can help you in many ways. You can learn to value yourself as you come to value others with the same condition. You can learn how they manage problems like sensory overload or being misunderstood.

It's easier to keep up with the latest research on synesthesia when you're a part of the larger community of people with synesthesia. Who knows? You may even find self-actualization by helping others better understand and express their synesthesia.

Do I Need Therapy For Synesthesia?

Technically, synesthesia is not a disorder; it’s simply a different type of sensory perception that impacts your unique experience of the world. As a result, many people who live with synesthesia don’t feel that they need therapy for this condition at all. So, if you have synesthesia and you feel perfectly happy, well-adjusted, and pleased with your synesthetic capabilities, then that’s awesome! If that’s how you feel, then you might not be interested in seeking therapy for synesthesia.

But if your experience with synesthesia is a little less positive, that’s okay. You don’t have to be happy about synesthesia’s impact on your experience with the world and it’s okay if you want some extra support. So, if you are having problems due to your synesthesia or others' attitudes towards it, you might benefit from talking to a therapist. A therapist can help you work through your feelings and experiences and develop healthy coping mechanisms that will empower you to navigate life in a happier and healthier way. Your therapist can also teach you relaxation techniques and help you build self-esteem. They can offer emotional support and help you connect with others in the synesthetic community.

BetterHelp can empower you to connect with a licensed mental health counsellor if you need assistance with this or other mental health questions. You'll be matched with a therapist who can help you in a way that works for you. Online therapy is flexible, affordable, and confidential. With the right help, you can learn to see, appreciate, and take full advantage of the unique perspective you have that others can only imagine!

Psychotherapy To Increase Self-Esteem

There is no specific therapy for synesthesia, as synesthesia is not considered a problem or disorder. However, as mentioned above, some synesthetes may experience problems with self-esteem because they feel different from others. Psychotherapy is an effective way to improve self-esteem. One study found that a combination of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) and art therapy significantly improved university students’ self-esteem and resilience, as compared with a control group that did not receive treatment. The authors pointed out that art serves as “a bridge between the internal world and external realities,” as well as acting as “a medium between the conscious and unconscious.”

The Benefits Of Online Therapy

As discussed above, therapy can help build self-esteem. But low self-esteem can make it difficult to attend in-person sessions. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy because online therapists don’t have to pay for costs like renting an office. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped people, including those with synesthesia, improve their self-esteem. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Stephanie was nothing but a wonderful counselor. She is an amazing listener who helped me realize the importance of my well-being and self-love as I went through several transitions in my life. She is easy to talk to and provides tools and ideas for dealing with a variety of emotional issues. I really appreciate all of her help, and I am beyond grateful for her.”

I feel like I can be 100% myself as I talk to Tim. He shows no judgement and is quick to make me feel like I’m not alone in my experience. He asks lots of thoughtful questions and challenges me to stand up to my damaging self-talk. I’m looking forward to working with Tim more. I think he is going to help me learn a lot about myself.

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