Have you ever watched a mesmerizing video — like those soap-cutting videos — and felt instantly relaxed, as if you just had a massage? Maybe you’ve felt this when someone is whispering, you’re getting a haircut, or someone is scratching your back.These are called autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) experiences and triggering them has become a popular way for some people to relieve their anxiety and to aid sleep.
What is ASMR?
According to Cynthia Catchings, a Virginia-based Talkspace therapist, ASMR is a technique that creates a feeling of euphoric tingling and relaxation that can come over someone when they watch certain videos or hear certain sounds. Some people describe it as experiencing a mild, but pleasant, electric shock at the back of their head. If you’re familiar with Bob Ross, the Joy of Painting shows featuring his soft voice and gentle paint strokes have pegged him as a godfather of ASMR because his show triggered the experience for so many viewers.
“The sounds create a sedative sensation that comes from what users call a ‘brain massage,’” Catchings said. “When specific sounds are heard or visuals seen, the person experiencing them might enter a state of relaxation similar to the one experienced while getting a regular body massage.”
According to Catchings, these triggers can treat anxiety and/or insomnia. “This goes back to the feelings created by the sounds and the relaxation levels achieved due to sensory manipulation,” she said. “All of them reduce anxiety and promote good sleeping patterns.”
Most popular ASMR triggers
While everyone is different, and it seems like there are new ASMR techniques being test driven all the time, some of the most common triggers for anxiety relief and sleep include:
- Page turning
- Writing with a pencil
These triggers are no secret — there are 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube from creators all around the world — but they do not work for everybody. Some people may experience relaxation, while others might not feel anything at all. It’s still not known what percentage of the wider population experiences ASRM responses.
The Research Behind ASMR Sensations
Catchings explains the reason why these triggers work might have something to do with stimuli and the way our senses work. Since ASMR gained traction in such a short period of time, there isn’t enough concrete data for us to use to gauge its effectiveness to treat anxiety and insomnia. Nevertheless, there’s growing interest amongst researchers in the subject and new tests and studies are being developed and conducted.
“One theory that really calls my attention is the one that states that the whispering or whispering like sounds are what makes it so special,” Catchings said. “It basically takes us back to the time where we were protected in our mother’s womb and the sense of safety relaxed us. Although this has not been scientifically proven, there is research that bases its work on this theory.” Other researchers suspect that the response may be an evolutionary leftover — a remnant of positive physical and emotional responses in primates to grooming behavior.
Some think ASMR might be a fleeting millennial trend, but others aren’t so sure. Researchers are hoping more investigation into it will result in more answers as to how ASMR can benefit a person’s mental health. And, in the meantime, many struggling with stress, anxiety, and insomnia are grateful to have something to turn to when they need to ease their mental health symptoms.