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ASMR: not just an internet trend

In her final year of high school, Amy Tredgett found herself anxious about everyday experiences, depressed from her encounters with bullying and stressed from school end-of-year examinations. To add to her daily distress, Tredgett frequently suffered from insomnia—which, more often than not, prevented her from receiving her required hours of sleep. On one particular night, right before one of her ATAR exams, Tredgett desperately turned to YouTube to search for some soothing background noise. She hoped it would help her rest. However, instead of switching on the pitter patter of rain or the gentle melodies of a flute, Tredgett fortuitously clicked on an ASMR video uploaded by the now popularised YouTube channel: ASMRDarling. “So that was how I was first introduced,” Tredgett says. “I realised that it sent me to sleep so quickly, and since then I’ve literally watched it and listened to it every night since then.”

ASMR is said to ease anxiety, depression and stress levels. Photo: Shalinn Yeap.

Tredgett is just one of the many people in the world who turn to ASMR, also known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, to ease their anxieties, depression, stress levels, and even chronic pain. ASMR is often found on the Internet in the form of online videos, which usually consist of people producing soft noises with common and mundane, inanimate objects. These noises are often referred to as ASMR ‘triggers’. The most common triggers include tapping on objects, brushing a makeup brush across a microphone or even whispering. Professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at Shenandoah University and ASMR researcher Dr Craig Richard describes ASMR as “a deeply relaxing sensation that is often accompanied by pleasurable tingles in the brain.”

Example of ASMR tapping trigger. Audio: Amy Tredgett.

Over recent years, ASMR has steadily gained popularity online. Those who have listened or watched ASMR, and have experienced a positive effect from doing so, claim that the experience involves feeling a ‘tingling’ sensation. This phenomenon is usually claimed to begin at an ASMR consumer’s scalp and is then felt in their shoulders before the sensation continues down their spine.

Despite the fact that many people have admitted to either experiencing the positive effects of ASMR or religiously relying on this phenomenon both online and offline, ASMR is still often perceived as a ‘weird’ or ‘disgusting’ Internet trend. While there are online communities and forums which do allow others to share their positive views of the topic, it is still very uncommon for people to applaud or praise it offline. Tredgett admits that she does not talk about ASMR to the people who are present in her everyday life. She says that she is well-aware of the negative conversation that is associated with the topic of it, and confessed that she doesn’t want to be perceived as “the person who falls asleep to people whispering to her”.

ASMRtists often produce ASMR content by recording themselves whispering into a microphone. Photo: Shalinn Yeap.

Tredgett isn’t the only ASMR consumer who does not openly talk about her experiences with ASMR offline. Most of the research conducted around this topic has been conducted online due to the secretive tendencies of those who consume it. “As much as I wish I didn’t care about what other people said, I kinda do,” Tredgett says. “And so, even though there is this massive community online, that all have to be real people, no one talks about it offline.” She looks down and lets out an awkward laugh, before she pushes her glasses up with her index finger and continues: “it’s kind of sad, because I think it helps a lot of people.” Tredgett confessed that she found this misconception slightly funny as “usually, people in the videos are doing the least creepy things, like there’s one about dying hair.” She describes the content in ASMR videos as “people doing normal things, just quieter.”

When I asked Tredgett how heavily she relied on ASMR, she responded that she definitely watches or listens to ASMR every day, without fail. During her day, she says that she will watch approximately two to five videos, depending on how busy she was. “I live a very fast-paced and full life,” she says. Tredgett currently studies as a full-time university student and balances two jobs on a daily basis, one of her jobs requires her to be at work by half past five in the morning, and she admits that she barely has any spare time for herself during the day. “ASMR helps me change my mindset from ‘need to do this’, ‘need to do this’ to ‘just take a breath and have a moment to yourself’.”

According to an online study conducted by ASMR researcher and Cognitive Scientist Emma L. Barratt, 98% of the participants in her research study mostly turned to ASMR as a way of relaxing, with 82% of them claiming that it helps them to overcome insomnia, and 72% agreeing that it helps them deal with their stress levels. Dr Richards states that while more conclusive research needs to be conducted on the subject of ASMR, chemicals in the brain such as endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin are involved. “Endorphins can reduce pain, oxytocin can reduce stress, and serotonin can lift the mood.”

Many of the online participants in Barratt’s research claimed that their initial experience with ASMR took place when they were between the ages of five to 10 years old. Music Therapist Sandra Cheah suggests that the reason as to why so many people experience a sense of comfort from watching or listening to ASMR could be due to the fact that it reminds them of the close and undivided attention that people used to receive from their parents during their early stages in life. While Sandra Cheah says that she does not personally experience ASMR, she admits that she does not doubt the efficacy of it on others who do. “Parents often whisper to their children when they attempt to console them or get them to sleep,” Cheah says. “Adults could be experiencing this very same effect from these ASMR videos.”

Cheah has worked as a music therapist at the Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, and she is currently completing her Master’s degree in Professional Counselling in order to set up her own not-for-profit practice in Malaysia. “In Professional Counselling, we have learnt from studies that many cases of anxiety and depression stems from a person’s childhood,” Cheah says. “People who listen to ASMR [could be] trying to recreate the kind of connection, love or interaction that gave them that sense of safety when they were younger.”

Out of the available academic research that has been conducted on ASMR, it has been proven that the consumption of ASMR greatly affects the consumer’s mood. In the research conducted by Barratt, it was shown that ASMR consumers who possessed a higher depression level, experienced a more significant difference in their mood after watching or listening to ASMR. Barratt claims that these statistics support the theory that people who heavily deal with depression, experience greater benefits from consuming ASMR; in comparison to those who have lower levels of depression.

While ASMR is usually defined by a ‘tingling’ sensation, as mentioned earlier, the ASMR research study conducted by Barratt suggests that the experience of this ‘tingle’ is not required for an ASMR consumer to enjoy the benefits of it. In Barratt’s study, 50 per cent of those who participated admitted that they did not feel a ‘tingle’ but experienced an improvement in their mood levels, nonetheless.

Tredgett also says that she does not listen to ASMR for this ‘tingle’ sensation. Instead, she appreciates the feeling of interacting with somebody else, which she says that she experiences while she’s watching or listening to an ASMR video. “ASMR is more than just ‘background noise’,” she says. “There are some videos which involve roleplaying, where they help calm you down as though they’re a therapist.”

Even though the ‘tingle’ sensation doesn’t need to be felt by an ASMR consumer for ASMR to be effective, it is usually considered to be the outstanding feature of it. This factor of the ASMR experience greatly contributes to the widespread opinion that ASMR is ‘strange’. However, Cheah says that this ‘tingle’ could be very similar to the ways in which some people feel ‘chills’ or ‘goose bumps’ when they listen to certain types of music. According to the data from this research study, approximately only 50 per cent of people experience this physiological reaction to music as well.

Those who produce ASMR content, and publish these videos online, are known as ASMR artists or ASMRtists. UK ASMRtist Cheryl, known online as Cheryl M ASMR, say she always informs her YouTube subscribers that ASMR should not be a direct substitute for professional therapy, but instead performs as a great addition to therapy. Cheryl says ASMR is very similar to mindfulness meditation. “You’re so entranced and focused on the video that it kind of helps you reduce that anxiety for a moment or it helps you forget about your depression,” she says. “It just keeps you in the present moment for the duration of the video.”

ASMR consumers have admitted that ASMR could possibly serve as a great substitute for those who find that meditating does not work for them. For example, Tredgett admits that meditating does not work for her, despite recommendations from psychologists. “I used to try, but I’m very unable to switch off,” she says. “When I’m watching ASMR it doesn’t feel so much like I’m switching off, more just slowing down.”

ASMRtists, such as ASMRDarling, are known to use the sounds of makeup brushes as an ASMR trigger. Photo: Shalinn Yeap.

While therapists and psychologists often readily recommend meditation for their patients to try, in order to ease symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress, these medical professionals rarely mention ASMR as a ‘calming’ remedy. Tredgett says that she does not understand why ASMR is never recommended. “I’m not saying that it will be effective to everyone,” she says. “but if it performs better than meditation for some people, doesn’t that make the recommendation worth it?”

Due to the rise of ASMR on video-sharing platforms such as YouTube, YouTube channels which produce ASMR videos, and meet the requirements for YouTube’s Partnership Program, receive money for their content. Because of this, ‘ASMRtist’ is now considered to be a professional career term, and many popular ASMRtist are currently earning their daily living expenses from the ASMR content they create. Popular ASMRtist Dmitri, known online as Massage ASMR, says that he began creating this type of content to share the ASMR experience, however he also admits that he is grateful that so many people rely on his YouTube channel for ASMR content—as it has allowed him to spend more time with his son.

Unfortunately, while there are a substantial number of people who have spoken out about the benefits of ASMR, it is still seen as a non-credible method of dealing with anxiety, depression or even insomnia. “ASMR still lacks enough evidence to back up how it works,” Cheah says. “In the psychology world, the science world, the therapy world, and the medical professional world as a whole, everything needs to be evidence-based.” Hence, ASMR is still heavily considered to be a topic that many professional scientists and researchers often dismiss.

Dr Richard attributes this dismissive tendency as a consistent trend amongst those who do not experience the physical ‘tingling’ sensation of ASMR, and hence overlook its effectiveness. “This is similar to the early decades of migraine research, migraines were commonly dismissed by scientists and researchers who didn’t experience them,” he says. ” It will take a certain threshold of research and published studies to convince some people about ASMR, which is somewhat a good thing because we do need more research being done about ASMR.”

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