Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast

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NINA BERMAN/AURORA FOR TIME

OVERDOSE: For some of us, even a little Times Square is too much

Maybe you cut the designer tags off the insides of your clothes because their tiny tickle drives you nuts. Maybe you stick a Post-it note over your blinking e-mail icon because the flashing distracts you. Maybe you run an air conditioner in November to drown out the sound of a car alarm that doesn't seem to bother anyone else. If this is you, take heart. You're not necessarily becoming an intolerant crank; rather, you may be suffering from a spanking-new syndrome called sensory defensive (SD) disorder.

That's the theory behind the new book Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight (HarperCollins) by developmental psychologist Sharon Heller. It's a theory worth heeding, Heller says, because the disorder, left untreated, can lead to hypertension, intestinal problems, even heart disease.


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Minting a new emotional condition is tricky, but Heller may be on to something. Forty years ago, occupational therapists recognized a similar condition in hyperactive children called tactile defensiveness. Heller expands on that in the context of today's hyperstimulating world. She believes that up to 15% of adults may suffer from some form of sensory defensiveness. One person avoids driving at night because he can't tolerate headlights reflecting in his rearview mirror. Another can't relax until she washes a musty-smelling dishrag in the next room. Says Heller: "Sensory defensiveness is when your reaction to stimuli starts to govern the choices you make in your life."

No one knows what causes the condition, but Heller believes genes play a role. The disorder may also be triggered by drugs, sexual abuse or anything that shocks the nervous system. She says her own case — and she does claim to be a sufferer — was exacerbated by a fall down the stairs.

No matter what causes SD, psychology textbooks may never make room for it. Says clinical psychologist Gary Emery, director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy in Los Angeles: "When people come up with a new disorder, often it's just a list of symptoms that fit other conditions."

Heller disagrees, believing her disorder belongs in the canon alongside such conditions as panic attacks and agoraphobia. It does resemble those and other ills — perhaps too much. Her description of an SD sufferer who performs a range of ritualistic chores before bed sounds a lot like someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another, who shrinks from people at parties because she's sensitive to heat and crowds, sounds like a social phobic. Heller argues that such confusion will clear up when psychologists become more familiar with SD.

There is no doubt that people with such trip-wired temperaments suffer real pain and could use real relief. Identifying these folks may shed light on their true disorder — whatever it may be — helping doctors prescribe better treatments. "If Heller is bringing attention to this problem," says R. Reid Wilson, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, "that's a real contribution." It may not make the textbooks, but it could make a difference.