For some people (myself included!), the repetitive sound of someone chewing food, whistling an indecipherable tune, or tapping a pen against their desk can drive them to distraction! So many daily sounds can really get under our skin, upset us, agitate us, and even cause rage.
Others, it appears, are entirely neutral to this aural assault and display no reaction at all.
And then there are the millions of people who find these sounds – along with whispering, scratching, and humming – extremely pleasurable, soothing, and even relaxing. The tingling, blissful sensations they experience in response to certain sounds is known as ASMR – Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.
In the last decade, ASMR has become a major trend on the internet, with ‘ASMRtists’ creating and uploading videos on sites like YouTube and TikTok to satisfy the ASMR community. In the last five years, search interest for ASMR content has increased by over 140%!
In this article, we’ll explore ASMR in more detail, reveal the most common triggers, and discuss the physical and mental health benefits it can provide for those who experience it.
What is ASMR?
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) was officially named in 2010 by Jennifer Allen to describe a specific sensation that some people experience in response to particular stimuli. Until then, it was often referred to as ‘brain tingles’ or ‘brain orgasms.’
ASMR-experiencers describe the feeling as a pleasurable tingling that often begins at the top of their head and slowly extends into their neck, shoulders, and upper back. They find this sensory and emotional reaction soothing, calming, and deeply relaxing.
The sensations felt result from an involuntary, spontaneous response from the body to specific triggers. A 2018 study revealed that exposure to the right ASMR trigger significantly activates regions of the brain associated with reward and emotional arousal – replicating feelings of satisfaction, bonding, and feeling comforted/cared for.
In addition to audio stimuli, ASMR triggers can include visual, tactile, and situational stimuli or having someone pay close personal attention to you.
Everyone responds to triggers differently – and with varying intensities – so while you might experience ASMR when someone brushes your hair, another person might feel it when they hear soft whispering or the sound of paper being scrunched into a ball or even when watching a video of someone carefully folding a sheet of paper!
Despite its popularity, the scientific community is only now beginning to recognize ASMR as a phenomenon worthy of study. While there’s still a lot to discover, early findings suggest ASMR could have significant therapeutic potential, for example, in alleviating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders.
Does everyone experience ASMR?
No, not everyone experiences ASMR.
And there are those who do but find the experience unpleasant and stressful.
A recent study has suggested that people with certain personality traits – such as neuroticism and anxiety – are much more likely to experience ASMR than others. However, further research is required to establish precise links.
What are the most common ASMR triggers?
Most people get ASMR from human contact or through watching specific-themed videos. While you can give yourself an ASMR experience, it’s rather like giving yourself a head massage – i.e., not as pleasurable or relaxing as receiving it from someone else!
ASMR triggers are oddly specific and will differ for everyone. What might evoke a strong response in one person can have absolutely no effect on someone else.
However, there are plenty of common triggers, including:
- Gentle voices and hushed whispers
- Blowing sounds, like a gentle breeze
- Water – including a dripping tap, waves, a rain storm, and waterfalls
- Tapping noises, like nails/fingertips tapping on glass or wood
- Crinkly sound of materials being scrunched, including foil, paper, and plastic wrap
- A pen or pencil writing on paper
- Vibrating sounds, like the buzzing of an electric toothbrush
- Eating/chewing, whether soft and slurpy or loud and crunchy
- Pages of a book being turned
- Watching gentle, precise hand movements
- Observing someone concentrating on a task
- Seeing paint being mixed
- Light patterns, including flashlights
- Nature-inspired sculptural forms
- Finger fluttering (also an audio trigger)
- Light tracking or tracing, such as at an eye examination
- Having your hair played with/washed/brushed/cut
- Face touching or light brushing
- Light touch to the skin, like being tickled with feathers
- Scalp/head/face/body massage
For some people, watching a video of someone else having a tactile experience – like getting their hair washed or receiving a head massage – can evoke the same ASMR response as actually experiencing it themselves.
Personal unbroken attention falls into a broader category but often intersects with physical touch. It includes, for example, being looked at, sharing direct eye contact, and being spoken to one-on-one. For some, this can generate a sense of companionship, closeness, and/or intimacy.
Real-life experiences, such as a doctor’s visit, dentist appointment, ear exam, spa treatment, or haircut, can be ASMR triggers, in part due to the one-on-one personal attention they provide. Alternatively, these scenarios can also be roleplayed for similar effects.
What are the physical and mental health benefits of ASMR?
Numerous studies have uncovered the positive effects ASMR can have on the body and mind, which include:
Research suggests that ASMR leads to changes in brain activity typically associated with a calm, relaxed state. It has also been found to significantly reduce the heart rate and slow down breathing, as occurs in stress-reduction techniques like yoga and meditation.
It can, therefore, help reduce stress (in those who experience ASMR), with potential therapeutic benefits for clinical conditions like anxiety and depression.
Aids better sleep
The second most common reason people watch ASMR videos is to help them fall asleep (82%). While research is currently limited on the benefits of ASMR for sleep disorders, what we do know about how ASMR works is consistent with claims that it can improve sleep.
For example, it appears to activate areas of the brain associated with sleep-inducing hormones like oxytocin and dopamine. These reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and trigger the deeply relaxed state essential to falling (and staying) asleep.
In addition to experiencing feelings of calm and an increased sense of well-being while watching ASMR media, many people report temporary relief from mood disorder symptoms, such as:
- Decreased energy / feeling sluggish
- Constant feelings of sadness
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Trouble sleeping or insomnia
- Overeating or loss of appetite
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Racing thoughts
- Low self-worth or feelings of inadequacy
In some cases, this may be due to the personal and social contexts in which many ASMR videos are presented. These can mimic a form of interpersonal bonding that helps promote the viewer’s well-being.
For others, it may be due to the fact that in watching ASMR videos, people are effectively engaged in a form of mindfulness. This is proven to improve emotion regulation, partly through paying attention to sensations and feelings in the present moment rather than being caught up in repetitive thought patterns.
Increases ability to cope with chronic pain
Emerging evidence suggests that ASMR may have therapeutic benefits for physical health, including temporary relief from chronic pain, including fibromyalgia, IBS, migraines, and arthritis.
It’s understood that the brain can ‘mute’ pain when it’s reassured, soothed, and happy, for example, through techniques such as guided meditation, visualization, and hypnosis.
As ASMR definitely makes the brains of those who can experience it very happy, it makes sense that it could be a viable option for reducing pain intensity, duration, and frequency. Watch this space!
Five top tips to get started with ASMR
If you want to experience ASMR and reap some of the potential health benefits, here are five things that you can try to improve your chances of success:
1. Find your personal trigger(s)
All ASMR triggers can be experienced first-hand or, as is becoming increasingly popular, via videos online. However, as everyone responds differently to ASMR triggers, you’ll need to experiment to determine which ones work best for you.
As ASMR typically emerges during childhood (without us realizing what it is!), think back to times when you felt tingles, shivers, or ‘pins and needles’ sensations – as these might provide some clues.
You can also start paying more attention to how you feel when you see, touch, hear, or experience certain things throughout your day.
The easiest route is to try out a selection of ASMR videos. There’s a large corner of the internet dedicated to videos covering a wide range of trigger situations, sights, and sounds. These videos typically combine several of the triggers listed above and exaggerate them to induce optimal ASMR experiences in viewers and listeners.
SAS-ASMR is known to be the most popular ‘ASMRtist’ with over nine million subscribers on her Youtube channel. Other prominent channels include Gentle Whispering ASMR, ASMR Darling, Gibi ASMR, ASMR Zeitgeist, and ASMRrequests.
2. Practice in a quiet place
Whether searching for your ASMR trigger – or once you’ve found it – you’ll achieve the best results by being in a quiet environment where you can pay full attention to what you’re feeling.
ASMR is closely related to mindfulness, where the brain is prompted to pay attention and be aware of specific sounds, sights, or sensations – so the fewer distractions the better.
If you’re focusing on sound only, try turning the lights off (or down) to enhance the experience.
3. Be in a comfortable position
As the ultimate aim is to de-stress and unwind, you’ll want to make sure your body is comfortable and relaxed before you start – either in a comfortable chair, on the sofa, or even in bed. ASMR has been shown to send people to sleep, so it’s important to be in a comfortable position (and place!) that you don’t mind falling asleep in!
4. Wear headphones
If you’re watching ASMR videos, you’ll get the best results if you use a pair of good, noise-isolating headphones that can produce a higher-quality sound and drown out any background noise. This will help you to focus your attention fully on the content.
5. Don’t have the volume set too high
If you do experience ASMR when watching videos, drifting off to sleep is highly likely. If you have YouTube on autoplay, you could get a nasty – and loud – surprise later in the evening! So, to reduce the chances of being woken up, and to avoid damaging your ears, set the volume below 85 decibels.
Initial research into ASMR looks promising and could lead to future therapeutic applications. What we currently know is that it can be helpful in providing temporary relief from symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain.
However, triggering ASMR is not recommended as a substitute for professional mental health treatments, like therapy and medication, if your symptoms are severe or persistent.
If ASMR only relieves your symptoms temporarily, it’s important to think about reaching out to a therapist who can better help you work through any deeper issues and provide the guidance and support needed for long-term relief.
Of course, if you enjoy ASMR’s benefits, there’s no reason to stop using it as a coping strategy; just consider using it alongside the evidence-based therapy options available.
If you’d like to learn more about anything discussed in this article or how we can help you or a loved one, please contact our friendly team today.
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