Can ASMR Help with Anxiety?
Videos of people whispering, tapping, and chewing have become a YouTube phenomenon. But what exactly is ASMR, and can it promote mental wellbeing? Let’s dive into the wonderful world of brain tingles
As I write this at work, my colleague next to me is tapping away at her computer, like she does every day. I feel a pleasant tingling sensation starting at the crown of my head, travelling down my neck, and spreading over my upper back. This strange and often wonderful feeling is known as an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – or ASMR.
When I was younger, I would notice these ‘tingles’ from time to time. Triggered by tapping noises and music, I thought it was something just my body did. I had no idea it was an experience shared by millions. Today, the term ASMR is widely known and has gained real traction.
Video-makers have found lucrative careers through ASMR. Buying custom-made microphones and performing various acts (from soft whispering and hair brushing, to slime squelching and food chewing), these ASMR stars amass subscribers in the millions.
Despite this growth in awareness and popularity, the scientific community still knows relatively little about the phenomenon. One peer-reviewed paper from Swansea University suspects a link between ASMR and synesthesia, where people have one sense perceived at the same time as another sense (for example seeing music as colour).
It is thought that synesthesia is at least partly determined by genetics, so genes could have a part to play in ASMR. The number of studies into ASMR is picking up though, with one 2015 study published in PeerJ – the Journal of Life & Environmental Sciences finding different people have different triggers – the most common being whispering, tapping, slow movements, repetitive movements, and personal attention.
In many ASMR videos, you’ll notice the presenters give the watcher a great deal of attention – speaking in a caring manner, and even role-playing scenarios, like having a haircut at a salon. It could be this in itself that triggers a sense of safety and wellbeing for viewers.
There’s still a lot about ASMR that’s unclear and in the Happiful office, opinion is divided. Some find it relaxing (one team member has made a playlist of tingle-inducing tunes), while others are very much opposed. “It makes me cringe and feels very unpleasant,” says fellow writer Bonnie.
Tapping into our mental health
Regardless of where you stand on the ASMR debate, what’s not in doubt is the number of people it helps. Those who struggle to sleep, and those with conditions like depression and anxiety, are starting to tune in to ASMR as a way to help manage symptoms. In fact, in the same 2015 study, those with depression reported an improvement in mood lasting a few hours after watching ASMR videos.
Psychotherapist Nicola Vanlint says utilising the senses through ASMR could also be helpful when treating anxiety.
“I tell clients that if they can activate one of their five senses when anxious, this can facilitate the nervous system to calm and distract the brain from unwanted thoughts. I believe ASMR works under the same principle, using sound to overcome insomnia by calming the brain and body, so this would also be a helpful technique to use for anxiety.”
Looking closer into the way ASMR relaxes us, Nicola tells me how sounds have the ability to calm our nervous system.
“Our brains are wired to activate our survival instincts through certain sounds like loud voices, crashing, and bangs. Perhaps ASMR facilitates the opposite, by calming the nervous system.
“Similar to the ancient practice of ‘gong/sound bathing’, a tool that allows the body and mind to relax, sound can activate the parasympathetic nervous system which slows our heart rate, lowers blood pressure and regulates breathing. Relaxing sounds bring about a meditative state.”
As with mindfulness meditation, when watching an ASMR video, viewers are engaging sight, sound and sensation, bringing them fully into their body and the present moment.
A 2018 study published by Beverley Fredborg, James Clark, and Stephen Smith, looked into the relationship between mindfulness and ASMR. Their findings suggest that mindfulness training could enhance the effects and benefits of ASMR. So, if you want to feel even more tingles, try honing your mindfulness skills.
Some sound advice
Nicola does point out that ASMR may not work for everyone: “Some people have misophonia, a condition where negative emotions, thoughts and physical responses are triggered by specific sounds.” Usually, the sounds that trigger misophonia are mouth sounds like chewing (the same sounds that give some people brain tingles).
If you do have misophonia, you may, therefore, want to avoid ‘mouth-sound’ ASMR videos – just don’t discount the medium altogether immediately. A few people in our office say they have misophonia, but also experience ASMR, so it could be worth trying other sounds like tapping.
The good news for those who do experience ASMR is that there’s a huge variety of content out there. Search around and see what helps you feel relaxed. Make a note of what sounds trigger your tingles, and add them to your self-care toolkit for sleepless nights, moments of high anxiety, or whenever you just need a moment of relaxation.
And hey, if (like me) your ASMR is triggered by the tapping of keyboards, get yourself an office job, sit next to some writers and enjoy moments of relaxation all day long… sigh
Nicola Vanlint works alongside mindfulness trainers and nutritionists at Greenwich Wellness Rooms. Find out more at greenwichwellnessrooms.co.uk
Top tips for trying ASMR:
Gentle Whispering ASMR – Maria has 1.6 million subscribers to her Gentle Whispering channel on YouTube. Follow along for a great variety of sounds; we particularly like her ‘Wood you like to fall asleep?’ video using different wooden tools.
There are more than 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube
Gibi ASMR – another big name in the ASMR world, Gibi has nearly two million subscribers on YouTube. Her Billie Eilish tribute video (where she gives Billie’s album the full ASMR treatment) has had nearly two million views.
Bob Ross – legendary host of The Joy of Painting, Bob Ross’ soft speaking voice combined with brushes tapping canvas makes for an ASMR dream. You can watch old episodes on YouTube.
The French Whisperer – if you use the Calm app’s sleep stories, you may have already heard the dulcet tones of The French Whisperer as he discusses the myth of Atlantis and the theory of relativity. If you don’t use the app, you can find more from The French Whisperer on YouTube.