ASMR for Sensational Sleep
by Ryan Hook | July 2, 2020, updated 5 months ago
My Struggles with Sleep
A few years ago, I was struggling with nightmares and night terrors. Every night I felt like I was at war with my mind. My bed became a battleground. After a few weeks of trying a variety of different remedies––CBD pills, herbal teas, going for a run right before bed––I was at a loss. The CBD made my brain more active, the herbal teas were caffeinated, and I only got more energetic after a run.
With luck, one particularly restless night around 3 a.m. I picked up my laptop. Most websites are blue-light, meaning they intentionally wake you up––that’s why Facebook and Twitter colours are blue. I know that having a laptop in your bed isn’t the most helpful thing, but I couldn’t help myself. In my restless stupor I went on to YouTube, and while there I stumbled upon a video of someone raking a little zen garden. The comments on the video were along the lines of, “Wow, instantly relaxed,” and, “Watch this every time before I go to bed.”
At that point, I would have hired Mike Tyson to knock me out if it meant that while I was down for the count I got even a little bit of sleep. Watching someone rake a zen garden sounded cheaper, and less painful.
I watched that person rake that zen garden for 20 minutes, until my body became relaxed and my eyelids became heavy. My vision became tunnel-like, and my mind became more settled. Soon my battle cries became snores. I fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning I was elated that I had actually gotten some rest. I saved the video to my bookmarks, and now whenever I find myself gearing up for battle, I know I can turn to that little zen garden to help me negotiate for peace––and quiet.
What is ASMR?
Most of us have probably fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole or two, and ended up watching too many Marvel Easter Egg videos, Tiny Home showings, or DIY home renovation videos. Perhaps you’re like me, and an ever growing subculture of people, and you’ve stumbled upon ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos too.
In the past few years ASMR has become one of the most popular forms of digital entertainment. YouTubers have made ASMR their full time job, and popular ASMR videos have garnered up to 20 million views on YouTube. These videos can be as simple as someone whispering into a microphone, pouring water into a glass, or slicing Jell-O with a knife. ASMR is defined as––
“A feeling of well-being combined with a tingling sensation in the scalp and down the back of the neck, as experienced by some people in response to a specific gentle stimulus, often a particular sound,”
Basically, something genuinely pleasing. Nails on a chalkboard are commonly referred to as a negative sound that makes many people cringe. ASMR is the opposite of that, and by definition soothing. The response to ASMR, for most people, is relaxation.
The term ASMR was coined by Jennifer Allen in 2010. The term may feel clinical, but Allen is neither a researcher nor a scientist––just a tingle-enthusiast. After years of searching blogs and message boards, and feeling like a weirdo for seeking out this sensation, she coined the term and began a Facebook group to connect with other tingle-enthusiasts. The term ASMR when broken down means––
Autonomous – from within
Sensory – relates to sensations
Meridian – the energy pathways of the Chinese Meridian System
Response – refers to the experience triggered internally or externally
ASMR feels like an electric current running up and down your spine, the relaxing feeling of a gentle tickle on your skin, or like champagne bubbles tingling through your body. It’s like your chakras are being filled with sensation, and then spill over, creating relaxation. I get it on rollercoasters, from a subtle whisper in my ear, or from snow crunching under my feet. Expert ASMRtists (those who practice ASMR) are able to play with that feeling. It can feel good, exhilarating, or for some, annoying.
ASMR is a difficult feeling to describe, but since 2010, ASMR has gone from whispers on message boards, to a whispering phenomenon.
What’s the Appeal?
Glenn MacDonald lives in Victoria, British Columbia and uses ASMR to help him fall asleep. He says, “It [ASMR] is a form of quasi-meditation. When I’m falling asleep, I tend to have a wandering mind that relives old mistakes and regrets––not ideal for sleepy time. With ASMR, I try to only focus on the sounds, and the tingles.” MacDonalds uses ASMR every night to help him sleep. For him it’s effortless.
While the term ASMR is new, the feeling isn’t––after all, ASMR is a natural response. We’ve just found a new way of referring to it, and engaging with it. ASMR has really taken off as a sleep therapy. If ocean noises, and rain sounds help lull you into a deep slumber, then you might have been enjoying ASMR before it became a YouTube sensation (get it).
Macdonald says, “I discovered it inadvertently when I was 8. Some girls were sitting behind me in class whispering to each other and I got massive tingles through my whole body. I didn’t realize it was ASMR until a few months ago when someone shared a video on Facebook. It gave me that same feeling.”
ASMR is a sensation, but it can also be a therapy. Kathryn Schmidt is an art therapist and founder of Colour Wheel Art Therapy. She says she is “thrilled” that ASMR has become a form of therapy for her clients. She says, “I work with a lot of teens on the autism spectrum, and I do a lot of work with them regarding mindfulness––trying to get them to centre themselves, their thoughts and feelings, and their impulses.” As an art therapist, Schmidt works to engage kids artistically so that they may, as her website says, “gain increased insight, emotional expression and regulation, better attachment between caregivers and children, management of symptoms such as stress, as well as increased executive functioning.”
Schmidt is grateful that ASMR is so common, she says, “ASMR has been normalized because of social media, and it makes my job as a therapist a lot easier.” Schmidt works with “not-the-most neurotypical” kids, and because of ASMR’s popularity she often hears kids say–– “This is like an ASMR video,” while they are in her office. It gives the kids something to connect with, particularly if they initially didn’t want to go to therapy. She welcomes ASMR as an “accessible-to-most” component of therapy saying, “Because teens are a lot harder to put in therapy, something like ASMR is a joy, because it’s the new normal.” As previously mentioned, one component of Schmidt’s practice is helping kids learn how to self-regulate. ASMR can provide valuable positive bio-feedback, and is accessed by most from home. It works well as a take-home coping tool, providing a way for neuro-a-typical people to self-regulate when they become hyper-stimulated.
Why This Response?
Triggers are far ranging for tingle enthusiasts, and science has yet to fully grasp why some triggers are stronger than others. Some people experience ASMR more intensely than others, and there’s currently nothing to explain that either. It’s like trying to know why one colour is your favourite and another person doesn’t like it––it just is, and they just don’t.
Perhaps it’s an emotional connection to some event in the past. Some ASMR videos include gift unwrapping, possibly evoking the joy of childhood birthdays and Christmases for some. Explaining ASMR is like explaining why over 190,000 people enjoy watching a woman squash her face into bread––you can’t, but they do.
The ASMR Support and Research website provides a list of common triggers:
- Exposure to slow, accented, or unique speech patterns
- Viewing educational, instructive, or lecture videos
- Experiencing a high empathetic or sympathetic reaction to an event
- Enjoying a piece of art or music
- Watching another person complete a task in a diligent, attentive manner
- Close, personal attention from another person
- Haircuts, or touch from another person on the head or back
Looking at this list, it’s hard to argue that most of these experiences are pleasurable. Science doesn’t know exactly why this physical feeling happens in response to these emotional triggers, but the feelings exist, and the triggers for them are different for everyone.
One study suggests ASMR is similar to synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is often understood in the context of musicians who see music as colours, however synaesthesia’s definition is much broader––it’s defined by the ignition of one or more of your other senses through the stimulation of another sense. In the above example, the musician experiences a sense of colour with certain sounds. ASMR and Synaesthesia are similar in the sense that normal external stimuli is processed, but then this stimuli is responded to by using more senses than the usual senses. One study suggests that ASMR is considered a form of sound-emotion synaesthesia.
Whether it’s synaesthesia or ASMR, you either experience it or you don’t. It’s uncertain why ASMR happens, and why it only happens to certain people, but we do know that the experience of ASMR can provide positive health effects.
The Effects and How They Differ
One study measured the heart rates of people who watch and experience the “tingles” of ASMR, to those of a similar age and gender who do not. Those who experience ASMR have an average 3.14 beats per minute decrease to their resting heart rates, and show significant increases in positive emotions. Similar findings were found in people who engaged in other stress relieving activities, like listening to music and mindfulness.
Tingles aside, ASMR can be used as a comfort for people who are lonely. When you watch the videos it’s often just you and the ASMRtist. Most of the videos are first person perspective, and the ASMRtists seem to be talking right to you. Macdonald says, “I live alone, so it is a way to feel less alone,” For people who live on their own it can provide a form of comfort that eases feelings of isolation.
Not everyone is crazy about ASMR. For some, the ‘tingle’ sensation is annoying. I asked my Facebook friends to weigh in on ASMR, and share their experiences. One person wrote, “I don’t know what it is, it makes me feel this awful sensation of anxiety and anger.”
Why ASMR is such a familiar and welcome sensation for some, but annoying and unwelcome to others is uncertain. One thing is for sure, for those that do experience the tingling sensation of ASMR, the positive health effects, the relaxation, and the comfort that ASMR provides is a quick, easy, and accessible way to engage with self-care.
While ASMR wasn’t a cure all for me––stress management and therapy were essential tools––it’s been a few months since I’ve had nightmares, night terrors and sleep problems. ASMR was and is, undoubtedly, a vital part in taking the stress out of bedtime. I’ve had a few restless nights here and there, but I know that if I ever need to broker a treaty between my restless mind, and the sweet oblivion of sleep, the soft sounds of a peaceful zen garden are just a trip to YouTube away.
The real trick will be finding an ASMR video that can get me out of bed in the morning!
Ryan Hook is a writer, photographer, musician, and spoken word poet. Born in St.Albert and living in Edmonton, Alberta, his mission is to bring Sound and Story. He has worked as a music journalist for Vue Weekly, BeatRoute, and Exclaim! as well as been a published short story writer. When he's not writing he is an accomplished songwriter and recording artist for his band, Baby Boy and the Earthly Delights. Whether it's writing, music, or travelling, he bides by the philosophy that life is a playground and nothing is off limits.