Does ASMR work against anxiety and insomnia?

Young man relaxing in the grass and enjoying the music  

It was past midnight, but sleep still eluded Ayushi Khemka, founder of Mental Health Talks India, Delhi. “It was one of my lowest phases of depression,” she recalls now, three years later. Her solution to this insomnia would be to plug her headphones in, and open a playlist she had curiously named, ‘That part of the Internet.’ It had the soft and scratchy sounds of chalk on blackboard.

For many, listening to ASMR sounds like these is still a niche hobby. It sounds technical — ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response — however, what listeners like Ayushi feel are “tingles, riding down the spine and in the fingers.”

ASMR videos promising to ease you into sleep have garnered over 50 million views on YouTube. They feature sounds such as the scratching of rubber mats and scrub brushes, nails tapping on wood and marble, squishing of bath sponges, of bath salts and sand being moved around, haircuts, and more.

Apps for meditation have begun including ASMR. Headspace and Calm use Nature sounds, also considered ASMR; others like Mindwell, launched earlier this year, have special ASMR categories, as does Canadian app Relax Melodies.

“ASMR began as a very niche form of content, but it quickly became evident to us that our users would benefit from this kind of experience,” says Aster Justine Haile, content creator for Relax Melodies. She claims that their ASMR-driven bedtime storiesare now the most sought after section on their app. “With millions of testimonies online, the proof is in the fact that people keep coming back to ASMR as an effective tool for relaxation and better sleep.”

In this age of constant video consumption, for many, the auditory ASMR works primarily because it allows people to shut off every other sense. On bad days, Shashank Surisetty, an IT professional from Hyderabad, likes to unwind by listening to Nature ASMR sounds, such as raindrops falling on a roof, wood being chopped, or twigs cracking. “Even if I watch something relaxing, I am thinking about what kind of screen it would look better on! But listening to these sounds is a relaxing experience,” he says.

Ayushi explains how, much like meditation, it helps improve focus. She has gone from listening to ASMR, to trying and producing those sounds on her own, by buying kinetic sand and slime. “When I am having a bad anxiety attack, I immediately use my kinetic sand to produce that ASMR. It gives me something to do with my hands,” she says. “It’s like this cheap first aid therapy.”

The growth of ASMR videos has spawned an equal number of people online who scoff at it. Even within the ASMR community, different triggers affect different people. ASMR whispers in particular, are divisive. A person gets close to the camera, gently waves their fingers about, and whispers, often role-playing as someone — a doctor, a make-up artist. While some enjoy the whispering sounds travelling from one ear to another, others find it creepy, even sexual in nature.

“We don’t know very much about ASMR from a scientific perspective, although there are some early studies. It certainly seems to be something that many people experience, but why it occurs and what its implications are for mood disorders or psychiatry in general are still unknown,” says Mindfit head Dr Shyam Bhat, Bengaluru-based psychiatrist.

A 2015 peer-reviewed research done on ASMR by Swansea University, United Kingdom, suggests links between the phenomenon and “temporary improvements in symptoms of depression and chronic pain in those who engage in ASMR.”

We need research into whether the markers for a calm state, such as heartbeat and sweat, change after listening to ASMR sounds. There is the question of whether the tingling sensation is a result of cognitive bias, much like placebos. “Is this purely a biological phenomenon? Or is it caused by psychological, cultural and social factors, such as living in a hyper stimulating, isolated and emotionally deprived environment?” Dr Bhat wonders out loud.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 7:49:13 AM |

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