I vividly remember my many nights of sinking into the depths of the lounge chair in my sophomore year dorm’s hallway, hoodie-laden and hunched over my computer screen, binging The Vampire Diaries at 2am (team Katherine if anyone asks). I’ve always been a bit of a night owl, but my insomnia had gotten so out of hand that year, even my peers took notice.
When Jason (from across the hall) finally decided to be the one to ask me about my many sleepless nights, he recommended I try out this thing called “ASMR.” Having never heard of it, I stared at him blankly before asking him to explain it to me, and proceeded to switch my laptop screen from TVD to a video of a woman making 3D sounds from props in a candlelit room.
…Cut to now, having Cardi B lull me to sleep on the reg as she slowly waves her freshly-manicured nails up and down my phone screen while delicately whispering okurrr into my (and 41 million others’) ears.
ASMR, short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, has quickly become my go-to method of winding down at night to help me fall asleep, and has honestly done wonders for my mental health, especially during these past few months. Curious about if this phenomenon—that I’ve often heard described as “oddly satisfying,” “strangely relaxing,” and “borderline erotic”—could work for you? Let’s dive in.
What is ASMR?
If you’ve never heard of this concept before, you might be visualizing me as an alien with some sort of sixth sense that just doesn’t add up. ASMR is best described as a feeling of positive well-being that is usually combined with a physical sensation that simply makes you feel good. These feelings and sensations—referred to as tingles in the world of ASMR— are results of various stimuli, or triggers (audio and visual cues) that heighten all of your senses. The Washington Post described the reaction as “a pleasurable tingling that begins in the head and scalp, shimmies down the spine and relaxes the entire body.”
Remember the feeling of the slight combing of your hair when you’d have that annual lice check at school, or having a bedtime story softy read to you as a kid, or being annoyed—yet strangely satisfied—by hearing someone smack their gum, or simply watching Bob Ross paint? If you felt ~some type of way~ at any of those moments, those were tingles, my friend.
ASMR is not necessarily something you have, but more something that you can be receptive to. Tons of YouTube videos exist to create the triggers people desire to feel tingles and that sense of well-being, but many might notice that when they watch or listen to them, they might not have the same reaction. Some may just feel a sense of drowsiness and relaxation rather than a physical tingle, while some might just not be susceptible at all. It is essentially a scale with various degrees of sensitivity.
Triggers can take on various forms, such as specific sounds like tapping on a wooden object, watching paint be mixed, or even experiencing a role-played virtual hair salon visit. When listening to an ASMR video or audio piece (particularly with headphones), you’ll notice sounds appearing in a three-dimensional manner around you, creating a very realistic setting. Creators often utilize binaural audio with multiple microphones to achieve this effect and create that illusion that you’re experiencing situations IRL, which is why role-playing-type ASMR videos are especially popular.
According to the American Sleep Association, the physical and mental sensations of ASMR have always been around since humans have existed, though it wasn’t until quite recently that there was a term coined (by a woman named Jennifer Allen in 2010) to describe them. The ASA also noted that these feelings of comfort, calmness, and drowsiness are likely caused by our brains releasing certain chemicals (including endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine) as a response to a trigger, leaving us happy and relaxed.
With it being a relatively new phenomenon, the amount of studies completed so far are quite limited. However, as ASMR has increased in popularity, the research and medical interest has also gone up with it, with this Swansea University study conducted in 2015 being a prime example.
You might be wondering: Is ASMR “a sex thing?”
So before we discuss this any further, it’s definitely worth addressing the elephant in the room: is ASMR… kind of sexual? I’ll admit that whenever I describe this phenomenon to someone who’s hearing about it for the first time, we can’t really talk about ASMR without discussing the notion that those not susceptible to it might correlate it to sex.
“[It’s] more sensual, less fetishistic—that being said, I’m sure if you look at certain [NSFW] video sites, you can probably find some ASMR-related videos,” Ross Miller, a senior editor at The Verge, said on The Verge’s What’s Tech podcast. It creates a sense of intimacy that can technically be considered to fall into the gray area of what is sexual versus what purely involves the senses, but leans more towards the latter.
Real talk: as Miller pointed out, essentially everything in this world can be spun to relate to sex in some way or another. So like all else, ASMR is also ultimately left open to interpretation.
Its rise to fame in recent years:
From a community of over 216 thousand members on Reddit to W Magazine’s popular video series dedicated to celebrities trying it out to the emergence of in-person immersive experiences like Whisperlodge, ASMR has become a real rising star in pop culture. The hashtag #asmr on Instagram itself has over 9.2 million hits, and people are thoroughly loving discovering this way to retreat from reality into a hypnotic state of calm.
For many people who can’t exactly feel the tingles, ASMR has become a popular form of white noise to help soothe them to sleep. “The genre had begun to find broader appeal as a sleep aid, an alternative to guided meditation and a drug-free, online version of Xanax,” Jamie Lauren Keiles wrote for The New York Times in 2019.
With this new form of entertainment comes the obvious: a new wave of niche celebrities. If you do a quick Google search on top “ASMRtists” (as they’re referred to), you’ll notice YouTube channels that have millions of subscribers. So many of these creators have completely transformed this notion into full-time careers, with a slew of loyal and passionate tingle-loving fans to support them.
How to integrate ASMR into your wellness routine:
Experiencing ASMR is like going to a virtual spa for your senses, and role-playing instances that make you feel calm, contented, and comfortable. From watching videos of getting a relaxing haircut or facial to listening to positive affirmations whispered to you as you drift to sleep, it creates feelings of intimacy and attentiveness that we all inherently crave—something that’s especially valued during a time in our lives where loneliness, stress, and insomnia are at an all-time high for many of us.
There’s no “right” method or time to try and engage in ASMR-related activities, but there are some that have proven to work for me, as well as many people I know. One of those includes making it the last step of your nighttime routine as you’re lying comfortably in bed, trying to fall asleep. Just pop on an ASMR podcast, and notice yourself drift deep into slumber. Another is to utilize it as a meditative mid-day retreat if you want to slow down and recharge your energy (perhaps even take a little nap!) by watching some videos.
For some, ASMR has also helped reduce stress and even alleviate pain from headaches. Though it is extremely low-risk, if you do find yourself suffering from chronic pain, anxiety, depression, or any other condition, please note that ASMR should not be used as a substitute for professional or medical intervention.
Ready to give it a try?
If I’ve intrigued you enough, perhaps it’s time to give this whole thing a whirl! Dim the lights, snuggle up with your favorite blanket, put in your headphones, and test drive ASMR through these soothing and mesmerizing videos, accounts, and podcasts that might just be the gateway to your favorite new method of self-care: