What Is Synesthesia? How To Cope With It

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

"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 may benefit from learning about what synesthesia is and how to cope with it.

What is synesthesia?

The word ‘synesthesia’ comes from ancient Greek and means "perceive together." It's a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive area brings about another sensory or cognitive experience. For example, singers like Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel have previously expressed that they perceive music as a spectrum of color.

Synesthesia is care, 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 label as a disorder because to them, it's just a different way of experiencing life.

Synesthesia can feel both incredible and overwhelming

What are the types of synesthesia and their characteristics?

There are two types of synesthesia: projective and associative. Let’s explore their differences.

  • Projective synesthesia involves seeing actual colors, forms, or shapes after sensory or cognitive stimulation.

  • Associative synesthesia involves feeling a strong, involuntary connection between sensory and cognitive stimulation on the one hand and colors, forms, or shapes on the other.

Specific types of associations or projections in synesthesia include:

  • Grapheme-color synesthesia, wherein the person associates a letter or number with a color (i.e., blue and the number ‘4’)

  • Number-form synesthesia, wherein a person visualizes a number map image when thinking of a number

  • Ordinal-linguistic personification, in which a person associates numbers, letters, months, and so forth with certain personality traits (i.e., generosity and January, greed and the number ‘7’).

  • Lexical-gustatory synesthesia -- associating a word or phoneme with a certain taste.

  • Auditory-tactile synesthesia, wherein sounds elicit tactile sensations in various parts of the body (i.e., a screeching noise may cause a cramp in the obliques).

  • Mirror-touch synesthesia, in which someone else touches something, and the person feels what the other person physically feels (i.e., experiencing the feeling of warmth while watching a person hover their hands over a mild bonfire).

How prevalent is 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 2 to 4% of the population, according to a fairly recent 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 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 the test-taker has to answer quickly. Because they go so quickly, they reveal the automatic responses of a potential synesthete.

For example, if the test-taker selects a specific color that they associate with a number once, and then selects the same color for that number again very quickly, it can show their automatic association between the two.

A neurologist named Richard Cytowic suggested that, when it comes to diagnosing synesthesia, the evaluator must detect automatic and involuntary associations, and synesthetic perceptions must be consistent over time. He also indicated that emotion plays a significant role in 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.

Developmental or genuine synesthesia starts at birth or during early childhood.

Acquired synesthesia happens after a brain injury – like a concussion, tumor, or stroke -- or following the use of artificial technologies to create sensory substitution.

Drug-induced synesthesia occurs in the moments after consuming a psychedelic or other drug. Brain structure and function are different in synesthetes. People with synesthesia typically have unusually high serotonin levels.

What are effective ways to cope with synesthesia?

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

However, that isn't true for everyone. If you have synesthesia, you may perceive that 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 may come to understand that synesthesia is natural for you. When you become an expert on your condition, you may realize living with it doesn’t mean there’s anything "wrong" with you.

Accept your synesthesia as a gift

Even if you're unhappy about your synesthesia, it can be helpful to highlight the ways in which it improves your life. Does it help you enjoy music more fully? Does it help you remember details 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

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 can find a way to manage 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 moving away from too much outside input.

Connect with other synesthetes

Connecting with other synesthetes can help 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 feeling misunderstood.

It may also be easier to keep up with the latest research on synesthesia when you're a part of the larger community of people who live with it. 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 believe 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 your reality, then you might not be interested in seeking therapy for synesthesia.

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.

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. 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!

Can psychotherapy increase self-esteem?

There is no specific therapy for synesthesia, as synesthesia is not considered a problem or disorder. However, some synesthetes may experience problems with self-esteem because they perceive themselves as being 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

Synesthesia can feel both incredible and overwhelming

As discussed above, therapy can help build self-esteem. Low self-esteem can make it difficult to attend in-person sessions. This is where online therapy comes in. 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.


While living with synesthesia can sometimes come with challenges – like sensory overload and confusing emotional associations – it can be perceived as a gift and special power as well. Coping with synesthesia involves coming to view it as such. With benefits like deeper emotional connections, more intense sensory experiences, and a unique skill set, synesthesia can make life a special kind of beautiful. Online therapy with BetterHelp can help people living with synesthesia become aware of its advantages.

Explore the unique ways you see the world
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