Whispering into a microphone, crinkling plastic, tapping on wood, brushing hair. What do all these things have in common? Believe it or not, they can relieve you of stress, soothe your anxieties, and even send you to sleep. No, really. We mean it.
All of these things are common features of a trend better known as ASMR. ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) is the name for a tingling sensation that usually starts on the scalp and slowly moves down the back of the neck, down the upper spine and throughout the body. These ‘tingles’ are normally triggered by specific sounds and noises (‘triggers’), and are said to feel like mild electrical currents or bubbles in a glass of champagne. While not everyone experiences ASMR tingles, for those who do, the result is often a positive, euphoric feeling that leads to a sense of calmness and relaxation.
WTH is ASMR?
So we know it sounds weird, but ASMR has become an enormous trend in recent years. There are now over 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube, and people of all ages and demographics worldwide love them for their soothing, calming (albeit often slightly strange) qualities.
ASMR as we know it today most frequently takes the form of either videos (on YouTube) or audio clips (on hosting services like Spotify and iTunes). The most popular types of ASMR videos usually feature somebody making 'trigger' noises close up in front of a microphone. These might be nails scratching or tapping on different materials or gentle whispering sounds and noises. However, another popular type of ASMR is role-play, where the person in the video will simulate a scene from everyday life and speak in a whispered voice to the camera, as if talking directly to the viewer. These are sometimes known as ‘personal attention’ videos.
Where before ASMR was a little known, hidden subculture on the outskirts of the internet, it’s now a global phenomenon thanks to its reported psychological and physiological benefits. Almost overnight, it seemed like everyone everywhere was either talking about ASMR or trying it out for themselves (one of our personal faves is this clip of Cardi B giving ASMR a go).
Over lockdown, the popularity of ASMR skyrocketed even further. With the majority of us cooped up at home, with little to do and little to distract us from the stresses of the pandemic, anxiety and sleep issues were steadily on the rise. In the UK alone, it has been reported that two thirds of adults have been sleeping worse since March. So where did many of us find solace? ASMR. During these testing months, the internet became a place of safety and comfort as millions of us tuned into ASMR videos to help us relax, de-stress and switch off from the day. Some even compare the sensation and effect of ASMR tingles to that of mindfulness or meditation.
So what are the benefits of ASMR?
But despite its mainstream popularity today, relatively little scientific experimentation has been carried out on ASMR. And the information that is available rarely goes back further than a few years, when the trend really began to take off. However, in 2018, the results of a study carried out by the University of Sheffield were released, which had huge implications for the positive benefits of ASMR.
The study split a group of people into two categories: those who were shown ASMR videos and those who were shown non-ASMR videos. For those in the ASMR group, those who experienced the highest levels of ASMR sensations reported feeling the highest levels of happiness and calmness. They also reported feeling the lowest levels of sadness and stress, compared with those feeling less ASMR sensations and those in the non-ASMR group.
ASMR for physical and mental relief
But aside from bringing about general feelings of happiness and calmness, ASMR can also help aid physical pain. “I discovered ASMR several years ago, when I was looking for ways to distract myself from the pain and discomfort of suffering from fibromyalgia,” Sarah Nicholson, of the YouTube channel Evoke ASMR, tells Innermost. Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes chronic pain throughout the body, and it often comes with other side effects such as fatigue and trouble sleeping.
Sarah was amazed at just how much ASMR helped relax her and distract her from her pain. And after seeing how much it could help people with a range of different mental and physical health problems, she started her own YouTube channel in 2018. Her channel now has almost 5,000 subscribers and the majority of her videos are medical ‘role-play’ videos, one of the most popular types of ASMR video.
Chloe*, of the YouTube channel Miss Chloe ASMR, was introduced to ASMR by a friend when she was struggling to sleep. "I've experienced tingles all my life," she says. "So I began watching more ASMR videos to discover new triggers to help me to sleep. They really helped me, so I thought I might give it a go to give back to the community. I published my first video in 2014 and I've been doing it ever since." Chloe's channel now has over 53,000 subscribers and she produces a range of videos, varying from sound triggers, to role-play, to personal attention.
For many, it’s the “personal attention” aspect of role-play videos that is “reassuring and comforting”, according to Sarah. “I get so many comments saying how my voice is calming and reassuring, and that my medical role-plays help calm their anxieties about visiting the doctor or the dentist,” she says. “I’ve also had comments from younger viewers who tell me that my videos have helped them calm down and sleep through periods of anxiety with studying and exams. Some viewers tell me they never even get to the end of my videos because they fall asleep, which is wonderful.”
As for lockdown, it was being confronted with change that led to increased anxiety in many of us. "Many of us don’t react well to change,” Sarah continues. “The whole idea of a different way of living, fear of illness, being separated from loved ones, and concerns over jobs and income brought about so much anxiety and stress for many. But again, I’ve received such positive feedback about how ASMR has helped my viewers in these unprecedented times.”
For Chloe, ASMR has provided "a little escape to help people feel less alone". She says: "The comments are particularly important too. So many others are in a similar mindset right now, and I’ve noticed lots of comment threads under my videos supporting and motivating each other, which is so lovely to see."
Quite simply, the reason why ASMR works so well is because the audio and visuals feature calming and gentle sounds, noises and actions, while the presenter takes on the role of a parent, friend or carer. Our brains recognise these sounds, sights and noises and associates them with recalled memories of safety and relaxation, helping us to feel these things more strongly in the present moment.
Top ASMR accounts to follow
If we’ve convinced you that ASMR could be the key to helping you relax and unwind for whatever reason you need to, be sure to check out some of these ASMR accounts we’ve been loving recently.
Have you tried ASMR before? How did you find it? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.
*Chloe has requested to keep her full name hidden out of respect for her privacy.