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There are more than 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube, with hundreds of millions of views. Most of the videos are designed to help people get into a super-relaxed state so that they can relieve stress and sleep better. There are also many popular audio-only ASMR recordings available for download on streaming services. Just what is this trending phenomenon and how does it work?
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Basically, it is a response to a gentle stimulus that is felt both physically and emotionally and has been found to produce physiological benefits. The sensations vary amongst those who experience it but most report that the effect is a sense of calm and relaxation. The physical sensations usually begin in the head, and move into the neck and shoulders, even down to the base of the spine. Some say that they also experience the sensations in their limbs. It can feel like tingles, chills or gentle waves. The pleasing emotional effects are what cause people to seek out ASMR, and are often described as calming, happy, euphoric, relaxing, or sleepy. One study showed a reduction in heart rate and an increase in positive emotions for those who experienced ASMR. Some participants even reported a reduction in chronic pain.
What is surprising is that these effects are the result of a stimulus that is quite gentle, and subtle. It could be as simple and mundane as the tapping or a finger. Or it could be intricate and complex, such as the reenactment of a typical visit to the hair salon.
ASMR can be experienced in two ways. The first, and most common, is through using external stimuli. This is where the YouTube videos come in handy. Yet it’s easy to create your own external triggers once you know what they are. The other way to experience ASMR is through internal stimuli, such as creative visualization, or meditation techniques.
“Triggers” fall into three different categories. Auditory stimuli could be the sound of a whisper, reported as the most popular ASMR trigger. You don’t even need to hear the actual words, just the soft vocal tones can set off ASMR. Other auditory triggers include a monotone voice, soft tapping, scratching, crinkling paper, or blowing. It could be the sound of slowly clicking through the teeth of a comb, or the sound of hair being cut, or brushed.
Visual stimuli may be experienced either internally or externally. Taking yourself back to a restful place, or looking at the ocean, for example, can trigger ASMR. Writing is another common trigger, as is eye contact, and page flipping. Some say that flowing hand movements sets off ASMR in them.
Tactile stimuli can also evoke ASMR, such as touching soft fabrics like velvet, or stroking a pet. It’s no surprise that a massage can be very relaxing, and for some this may be ASMR at play. A light touch, such as a gentle caress of the face, can also trigger ASMR.
All of these stimuli are comforting, gentle, repetitive and non-threatening. They are performed slowly, steadily, and predictably. Researchers say that the most effective types of stimuli for ASMR include the person receiving attention in some way, through grooming or other care. You’ll notice that many ASMR recordings include a combination of stimuli for greater effect. The presenter speaks to the viewer personally – slowly and quietly, in a pleasant and reassuring tone. This helps the viewer feel relaxed and cared for, a state of mind that contributes to the desired response.
Research suggests that the same brain chemicals that are produced in the process of bonding, which also creates a sense of comfort and calm, are responsible for ASMR. Endorphins, sometimes called our “happy” chemicals, can bring on a tingling sensation and sense of euphoria. Endorphins also stimulate the release of dopamine. Dopamine is what drives us to look for stimuli that triggers the release of endorphins. Then there’s oxytocin, also called the “bonding hormone” that produces feelings of contentment and trust. Oxytocin increases our sensitivity to endorphins, and also stimulates the release of another brain chemical, serotonin. Serotonin helps to give us that feeling of well-being and sense of satisfaction, and also gets us feeling happier in general.
Each of us produces these brain chemicals that are said to be the cause of ASMR. And yet, the ASMR experience varies widely from person to person. It may be that we just need to find the right trigger for ourselves, or it may be a difference within our own genes. Just as some people taste spice differently, some preferring lots of heat and others more sensitive to even the smallest bit, our need for a stronger or weaker ASMR stimulus could be genetic. However, we can train ourselves to be more sensitive to stimuli, and thereby more likely to experience ASMR. First, experiment with a few of the more common ASMR triggers to see which appeals to and works for you. Then, just as you would before meditation, find a safe and comfortable environment where you can relax. Since this is meant to be used as a sleep aid, feel free to lie down. If it’s bedtime, tuck yourself into bed. Clear your mind and focus on the stimulus and check in with your body and emotions to better understand where and how you may feel a response.
ASMR recordings are most frequently used to help people get into a relaxed state so that they can fall sleep more easily and sleep more soundly. These recordings are similar to the guided meditations that have been used for many years to help with sleep problems. Listening to a recording, or watching a video, helps to focus our attention and keep us from being distracted by all the unresolved problems of the day. It helps to relax the body, releasing muscle tension, and allowing for deeper, slower breathing. This is a great way to self-soothe, with no negative side-effects, and no financial investment.