How ASMR may help with anxiety and depression
Do you know the feeling of getting a haircut and almost falling asleep? How about the feeling of getting a massage when your whole body loosens and relaxes? Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, also known as ASMR, is a phenomenon in which an individual feels a tingling sensation that’s triggered by acoustic or visual stimulation. The delicate sensation starts at the top of the head and oozes its way down the back of the neck and to other parts of the body. It’s a genuinely warm and relaxing feeling for those who can experience it. For those who can’t experience it, the sensation is comparable to kneading your head with a multi-pronged scalp massager.
Ohhh yeah. That’s a nice feeling, right?
There are millions of ASMR videos on YouTube and a big part of the community is figuring out what triggers work for you. For instance, ASMR videos can include whispering, role-playing, personal attention, slow movements, crisp sounds, tapping, or visuals. Everyone’s practice with it is different, but it’s usually a positive experience. We spoke with Victor Shamas, Ph.D., as well as Elliott Padfield, who’s part of the ASMR community, to learn more about ASMR and its benefits. Here’s what we found out.
Background and current research on ASMR
There’s very little research on ASMR. The first study of the physical aspect of ASMR was conducted in 2018 by researchers from the University of Sheffield. They simply found that those who experienced the phenomenon had significantly reduced heart rates while watching ASMR videos compared to people who did not experience ASMR.
“Research into the physiology of ASMR shows that it slows down the heart rate and produces calm relaxing feelings, as well as the release of oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone,” Shamas explains.
Oh yes, we know all about the benefits of cuddling. The study also found that those who viewed ASMR videos showed significant increases in positive emotions, including relaxation and feelings of social connection. The study suggests that people who experience ASMR benefit emotionally and physiologically but there’s no research on long term effects. There are still many questions that need to be answered as it’s not a well-studied phenomenon.
“More thorough surveys and interviews with individuals who experience ASMR regularly need to be conducted,” says Shamas. “Researchers have not been asking individuals some of the more interesting and obvious questions: Do you experience tingling regularly as part of your orgasm? If so, where is that tingling centered in your body? And how does it compare to the tingling you feel when you have an ASMR response?”
The ASMR feeling and its benefits
So what is that tingle sensation that one feels when they watch ASMR videos? Is it sexual? Is it numbing? How long does it last?
“ASMR is not sexual stimulation; it more closely resembles the tingling of an orgasm and the afterglow that follows,” explains Shamas. “Imagine what would happen if you were to skip over all the steps of sexual stimulation and arousal and go straight to the tingling afterglow. That is what I think is happening in ASMR.”
“The actual tingling sensation is like a wave of relaxation that passes over your scalp, shoulders, and flows down your spine,” says Padfield. “I think the most relatable example of ASMR would be the ‘Crack an Egg on Your Head’ song.”
According to Padfield, watching ASMR videos puts you in the perfect state for sleep. While there is not a lot of evidence to support the benefits of ASMR, people who experience it claim to use it as a sleep aid, to calm anxiety, to aid with depression and loneliness, or to simply relax.
“The tingling itself is often very short — only about 10 seconds and will stop and start during a video. The euphoria after ‘tingling’ will probably last a few minutes as your muscles are entirely loose. The relaxing effect can last as long as your environment allows,” said Padfield.
The sensation isn’t felt by everyone
ASMR doesn’t work for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not relaxing. Even if you can’t feel the brain tingles, the videos can put you in a peaceful state of mind as they’re usually quiet and tranquil, sometimes in a dim setting. It’s like stepping into a warm yoga studio and knowing that the room is a sacred space to relax and be in the moment. It’s the same thing when you turn on an ASMR video.
“We do not yet know what it is that makes some people more susceptible to ASMR than others, but we do have evidence that personality differences may be at play,” explains Shamas. “On a standard personality test, people who experience ASMR showed higher scores on Openness-to-Experience and Neuroticism, meaning that these individuals are more likely to try new things or consider new ideas. They are more likely to be moody and experience feelings such as anger, fear, anxiety, jealousy, and sadness.”
Padfield explained that even if you don’t experience ASMR, the relaxing effects are great for anyone under pressure.
Therapeutic application of ASMR
ASMR is an interesting community. If you scroll through the comments of a few YouTube videos, you’ll find that a lot of people talk about how watching a certain video helps them manage stress or reduce anxiety. Findings from this 2018 study indicate that ASMR is a reliable and physiologically-rooted experience that may have therapeutic benefits for mental and physical health.
“A team of psychologists at the University of Sheffield have found that ASMR videos can produce both a calming sensation and reduced heart rate in people who experience ASMR,” says Shamas. “Both of these effects also point to the possibility that ASMR could have therapeutic applications. But it is too early to draw any solid conclusions about such applications. Much more research is needed.”
A 2015 study on ASMR triggers found that the most common time for engagement with these videos was before bed. It also found that whispering was the most common trigger for the tingle sensation among participants in the study.
“Usually, I only watch ASMR videos before sleep as they are a great way of quickening the descent from being fully alert to the unconscious,” explains Padfield. “Being a student as well as an entrepreneur, I have watched videos in the past to relax before an exam or stressful meeting. It seems like a reset switch.”
Tips if you’re interested in ASMR but don’t know where to start
If you’re curious about ASMR, start by watching a few of the popular videos to understand what it’s all about. Gibi ASMR and Gentle Whispering ASMR are great places to start. From there, you can explore different genres or triggers (role-playing, applying makeup, drawing, folding towels) that work best for you. And don’t worry no one’s judging. It’s not that kind of community. In fact, you might even make a few friends.
“There is still a little bit of stigma outside of the community with the idea that you are listening to someone whisper to you in your sleep. The ASMR community is a great place to make some friends. The smaller ASMRtists have very tight-knit communities and you do get to know people. Some creators like WhispersRedASMR host live ASMR events to bring people together,” says Padfield.
“I recommend that anyone who is curious about ASMR try experimenting with it. Besides ASMR videos, you can try light touch such as head massage or having your hair brushed,” explains Shamas. “Maybe you will find something that triggers these kinds of brain tingles in you. If so, ASMR could be a good way to relax when you are feeling tense.”
Although there is very little research behind its proven benefits, people who watch ASMR videos may experience reduced stress, social connection, or help with falling asleep. More research is needed in order to understand how it can be harnessed to treat anxiety and depression.
“What we know about ASMR is that it feels good, which is why people seek it out. Clearly, it’s not for everyone. And there is not enough research evidence to say for sure that ASMR has any lasting therapeutic effects,” says Shamas “But ASMR shows us something very important about ourselves: that we are capable of experiencing much more than we might realize. There are many feelings and sensations yet to be explored. If you try ASMR for the first time, you might just surprise yourself.”