I have always envied those who could slip into sleep like it was a hot bath. For me, unwinding and relaxing at the end of the day tended to come with a list of preconditions. Unless all of those boxes were ticked, switching off felt like a distant reality.
But then one day, when I was scrolling instead of sleeping, I stumbled across a YouTube video of a woman tapping a piece of cork. Curiously, as I watched, I experienced a tingling sensation at the back of my head, it was like having my hair brushed as a child. I felt my limbs begin to release and relax down into the soft mattress. I quickly clicked on another video and, like Alice into Wonderland, I tumbled down the rabbit hole of the intriguing phenomenon that is ‘ASMR’.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response or ‘ASMR’, is the term used to describe a physical reaction, like a soothing tingle, which is triggered by an audio or visual cue. You might find that watching somebody paint or do origami is quite relaxing. You may even notice a warm, goosebump-like feeling as you become gradually absorbed by a piece of paper being pressed into neat folds or by hearing the paintbrush gently stroke across a textured canvas. This feeling is ASMR.
ASMR is a generally pleasurable and calming sensation but it is a distinctly non-sexual experience. Everyday encounters such as a beauty appointment or a shoe-fitting have been known to prompt this response. More recently, the term has become synonymous with the videos that try to induce this feeling. YouTubers known as ‘ASMRtists’ tap or stroke particular objects, speak softly, make clicking sounds or perform calming, everyday tasks to prompt the physical ASMR reaction. These actions are known as ‘triggers’.
“It’s not too dissimilar, for instance, to music chills,” says Dr Thomas Hostler, a lecturer in psychology from Manchester Metropolitan University. “When you hear a piece of really epic music or a really awe-inspiring speech for instance, you might get these kinds of shivers.”
What are the benefits of ASMR?
You may well have heard of ASMR and you may have already discovered its benefits, as its popularity is growing rapidly. According to statistics from Google, ‘ASMR’ is typed into the YouTube search bar nearly three times more often than the word ‘chocolate’! Many people watch these kinds of videos to unwind or to help them sleep. One small study even suggested ASMR can temporarily ease some symptoms of chronic pain and depression for some people, but more research is needed.
“ASMR has helped with my anxiety,” says Carina Ortiz, a full-time student who began watching videos three years ago to relax before going to bed. “It’s a feeling that brings peace to the mind and body. I’d even go as far as to call it a form of meditation.”
Experts aren’t entirely sure exactly what causes ASMR and why people experience it as they do, but the area is beginning to receive scientific interest. Dr Hostler and his fellow researchers wanted to determine whether ASMR videos really can influence a physical response. “Our study showed that this was possible,” he says. “When people experienced ASMR, it did seem to decrease their heart rate and show signs of relaxation.” Dr Hostler’s research concluded that ASMR could have real health benefits for some people, although others do not experience these ‘brain tingles’ at all.
While it might not work for everyone, there are currently more than 5.2 million ASMR videos on YouTube alone. In a fast-moving world, it seems that many of us are turning to technology to help us tune out. On BBC Radio 3’s ‘Slow Radio’, for instance, you can listen to musicians playing in harmony with nightingales, or tune in to the soothing sounds of a Japanese paddy field in summer. Celebrities like Margot Robbie, Cara Delevingne and Cardi B have even created some of their own relaxing videos.
Often, it is the sense of safety and familiarity with ASMRtists that helps us unwind. In one video, actress Jennifer Garner engages with props that are reminiscent of some of her most popular on-screen roles. This recognition helps us to create a connection and feel at ease with her.
For this reason, many ASMRtists talk softly like a friend or role-play a familiar scenario in their videos. Some channels also follow particular themes. “Gaming and sci-fi are interests of mine and I saw a gap in the ASMR community,” says Sophie Moates, who interacts with Star Wars memorabilia and plays video games on her UK-based channel, ASMRplanet. “The world can be a stressful place and being able to watch an ASMR video [can make you] feel comforted, safe and happy.”
How ASMR can help you to fall asleep
ASMR videos can be especially useful before bedtime. You might struggle to sleep at the weekends when you are out of your usual routine, or during the week when you are trying to switch off after work or studying. ASMR can also be used to de-stress, particularly if you struggle with more traditional meditation exercises.
Watching a calming video can help hold your attention and pull your thoughts away from those niggling everyday tensions. If you’re trying ASMR for the first time, YouTube is a wonderful place to start. “Find your own preferred videos,” advises ASMRtist Sophie. “Sometimes the most popular videos won’t give you the ASMR effect but videos with just 100 views will.”
Once you’ve found a channel you’re interested in, climb into bed or curl up with a blanket on the sofa. Take some deep, calming breaths so you are prepared to begin relaxation. “It helps if you aren’t too agitated when you sit down to try and watch [ASMR videos],” says Dr Hostler. “Try and get some good headphones and a quiet room.”
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a very individual experience, so don’t be put off if it takes a little time to find the triggers that work for you. When you begin watching a video, slow down your breathing and try to release any tension in your joints. Let the muscles in your face soften and your body become heavy. If you start to feel a tingling sensation, relax into it. Allow the feeling to wash over your head and down your spine. Focus on the sounds and movements from the video and move away from any busy thoughts relating to the outside world.
“The mind is a powerful tool,” says Carina. “I think ASMR is the way to put it at ease.”
Find your ASMR tingle trigger
Not sure where to start? Here are some of the most popular ASMR videoss and channels that Youtube has to offer, from soothing accents to brushstrokes.
ASMRtist Gibi (pronounced gee-bee) is one of the most popular on YouTube. She has over 1.5 million subscribers and more than 7 million views on some of her most watched videos. Gibi is a good safe bet to start you off with ASMR, as her channel incorporates many of the most common triggers.
Dr Thomas Hostler recommends the WhispersRed channel, which is run by one of most followed ASMRtists in the UK, Emma. She has a warm, motherly appeal and is a particularly good option if you are thinking about trying ASMR to help you sleep.
ASMRtist Lily particularly appeals to teenagers or younger women as her channel includes ASMR role-playing videos, where she becomes your best friend at a nail bar or gives you a makeover as Kylie Jenner! Lily also has videos specifically designed for panic attacks, where she talks to you like a friend, reassures you and guides you through breathing exercises.
Sophie has been curating her gaming and sci-fi themed channel, ASMRplanet, for the past two years. “The most rewarding part about making ASMR videos is the fact that they actually help people,” says ASMRtist Sophie. “It’s not just entertainment, but it can actually make a difference to people’s lives.”
Sophie at ASMRplanet also uses videos herself to relax while she works on her art. One of her favourite accounts is SouthernASMR Sounds. ASMRtist Mary is like a favourite aunt. She takes you around the supermarket with her, and reads through magazines or books with you.
One of Carina Ortiz’s favourite accounts is @GwenGwiz. ASMRtist Gwen runs a younger, lifestyle themed account. She combines makeovers, travel vlogs and clothing hauls with ASMR. “[GwenGwiz] makes you feel like you’re her friend, not a viewer,” she says.
An unexpected ASMR icon is 80s and 90s star of TV show, The Joy of Painting, artist Bob Ross. Many people enjoy watching him paint and talk calmly about his work, even though he didn’t film the clips with an ASMR response in mind. This is what Dr Hostler calls an ‘accidental’ ASMR video.
Featured image by Getty Images/Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm.