Are you having trouble falling and staying asleep? How many things have you tried to rid yourself of this curse? Everything, right? Well, there is one thing you may not yet have given a go - ASMR.
We’re saying that you may not yet have tried it because it's a pretty new technique. But regardless of its new status it's starting to have a positive impact on the lives of insomniacs.
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So what exactly is ASMR?
ASMR or autonomous sensory meridian response, to give it its full title, is sometimes referred to as a condition, a phenomenon, or an experience. ASMR has only recently been identified as a condition and assigned its nonclinical title in the past 10 years.
People who experience ASMR witness feelings of pleasure and relaxation through a tingling sensation in the neck and head. These feelings are triggered by certain imagery or sounds. Although the most common stimuli are audio and visual, some people also have the experience through smell and touch.
What triggers ASMR?
The relaxing sensations of ASMR can be triggered by a wide variety of sights and sounds. Commonly reported stimuli include observing and hearing people conduct simple everyday tasks. Popular ASMR triggers are observing turning the pages of a book, folding clothes, brushing hair, or eating a meal.
Popular ASMR sounds include hearing running water, scratching of nails, and the scrunching of plastic. Whispering, however, seems to be the top ASMR audio stimulus. Someone who has a large following in the ASMR community is the softly-spoken celebrity painter Bob Ross.
Personal care routines such as having a massage, manicure, or hair washed are also common ASMR stimuli. To trigger such experiences people will generally watch a video of the event. There are now countless YouTube channels dedicated to providing ASMR stimuli.
How does an ASMR experience feel?
The ASMR experience is both a physical and emotional. Physical aspects usually kick off with a relaxed tingling in the head and neck that slowly travels down the arms and legs.
Along with these physical sensations are intense feelings of nonsexual pleasure. People generally experience what they describe as a 'rush' of relaxation and calmness along with inner comfort and a sense of wellbeing.
How widespread is ASMR?
Not everyone is able to experience ASMR and there is no scientific explanation for this yet. One thing that is widely believed is that ASMR occurs as a result of different brain waves that people experience.
There is also no indication of the number of people who are able to experience ASMR. Some studies have uncovered anecdotal evidence suggesting that ASMR may be more widespread than first thought. The rise in ASMR stimulus videos certainly indicates that there is significant demand for the sensory experience.
Over the 10 years or so since it was discovered ASMR has developed a large following of people practising it. This number appears to be growing as awareness of the calming and euphoric benefits spreads.
Why does ASMR occur?
ASMR has probably been around forever. But, as it is a recent discovery, scientists are only beginning to understand it. For instance, the first peer-reviewed study into ASMR was conducted only in 2015 by researchers at Swansea University in the United Kingdom.
However, scientific interest is increasing fast. This is largely due to the incredible public response to ASMR. Of course, there is still a huge amount that we have to learn about ASMR, not least how it helps with sleep.
We do know that not everyone experiences ASMR. We also know from the 2015 Swansea University study that most people have their first ASMR experience during childhood. As more studies are conducted, we will increase our knowledge of the characteristics of ASMR and also those of the people who experience it.
Similarities between ASMR and flow
Flow is a highly researched and widely accepted state. It is a combination of being deeply relaxed and maintaining a high level of focus. The synergy that evolves from this combination leaves one feeling totally at ease with the ability to perform at one's physical and mental best. When in a full state of flow, one loses track of time. One recent study into flow highlighted the feeling of being deeply relaxed and the strong sense of wellbeing that it invokes as being similar to ASMR.
Differences between ASMR and flow
There is one clear and significant difference between ASMR and flow. When someone is in a state of flow, they are conducting a task, be it a sport, music, or academic task. ASMR does not require active engagement.
The connection of ASMR with misophonia and synesthesia
Misophonia is at the other end of the scale from ASMR. If you experience misophonia, you will be the type of person who is extremely sensitive to certain sounds. Unlike ASMR, when people have a misophonic experience, strong feelings of anger, disgust, agitation, and discomfort are triggered. The sound of someone chewing food or even just breathing can trigger misophonia.
One study into misophonia concluded that around 50% of those who experienced the condition also experienced ASMR. This result suggests that these two sensory-sensitivity conditions could exist on a spectrum. Misophonia may also negatively affect people's sleep patterns, certainly if they are sensitive to heavy breathing, snoring, or yawning.
Another condition that ASMR shares attributes with is synesthesia. With this condition one sensory response automatically triggers another. For instance, when someone hears a certain sound they respond by experiencing a certain smell. Studies carried out recently concluded that around 6% of people who experience ASMR also experience synesthesia.
The connection of ASMR to mindfulness
Mindfulness combines an attuning of the senses and emotions, hence in this way it is similar to ASMR. A mindful state brings about keen awareness of one’s senses, feelings, and thoughts. Mindfulness allows this sensory and emotional awareness to be accepted without judgement. Mindfulness can result in a state of deep relaxation, peaceful feelings, comfort, and overall sense of wellbeing. These are almost exactly the same effects as those that people report from an ASMR experience.
One recently conducted study explored how mindfulness and ASMR could be connected. The research concluded that people who experience ASMR have more characteristics of mindfulness than those who do not experience ASMR. Mindfulness is regarded as being powerful in enhancing good sleep. The reduction in stress levels that mindfulness brings improves the quality and quantity of sleep and reduces the time taken to fall asleep.
Is there a typical ASMR personality?
It would appear so, certainly according to a 2017 study that looked at the personality traits of around 300 adults with ASMR and compared them to a similar number that had no experience of the sensory condition. The study found that people with ASMR had a higher tendency to be inquisitive, were more artistic; had more daydreams; and generally were more ‘unconventional’ in their lives and perceptions. The findings also suggest that this group is more likely to be self-conscious and suffer from depression and/or anxiety.
One’s personality can affect sleep in a variety of ways. People who plan and rigidly stick to their sleep and wake times are less likely to suffer from insomnia than people who have less predictable sleep regimes.
ASMR and brain differences
Researchers are only just beginning to understand the way that ASMR works in the brain. Initial signs are that there may be built-in differences in the structure and function of the brains of people with ASMR. The previously referenced 2017 study showed that people who experience ASMR have regions of the brain that show higher connectivity.
In essence, these regions operate more like a network, although some areas of the brain were less networked in the same group of people. This has led to the hypothesis that ASMR may (at least in part) be caused by a blending of networked areas of the brain. Hence the duality of sensory and emotional experience associated with ASMR.
Possible benefits of ASMR for sleep
Studies into how ASMR can aid good sleep are just beginning and there are no conclusive data to state either way so far. What is known is that it is already being used by people to help resolve their sleep problems. In fact, a 2015 study discovered that the majority of people who can experience ASMR use it to aid their sleep. The results indicate that around 81% of those studied used ASMR just before going to bed. So could ASMR be used to enhance people’s sleep? The jury is still out on that, but while we don’t know for sure, recent studies and user-reported experience suggest several possibilities.
People who have experienced ASMR state that they feel much calmer and less stressed. A research study in 2018 discovered that viewing ASMR videos produced reductions of psychological and physiological stress indicators. Not only did stress levels decrease, but feelings of calmness increased and the heart rate decreased in the sample.
The study was conducted by two groups: one with ASMR and one without. Both groups watched the same ASMR videos and had the vital statistics recorded. The group without ASMR showed no benefits of the stress-reduction enjoyed by the group with ASMR.
For the first time this study had measured ASMR's physiological effects. One significant conclusion was that feeling calm can happen simultaneously with feeling excited. The heart rate was often lowered in conjunction with signs of physiological and nonsexual arousal.
The overall findings of the study demonstrate the complexity of a person's emotional and physical responses to an ASMR experience. As stress is one of the most common causes of sleep disorder, the stress-relieving effects of ASMR could be one reason why many people are finding it beneficial for better sleep.
Improvement in mood
An enhanced mood is another positive effect that people experiencing ASMR claim. This is backed up in part by the studies carried out so far where it's been shown to improve the symptoms of depression.
During a 2015 study 80% of those with ASMR reported that it had a positive effect on their mood. In 2018 it was found that watching ASMR videos decreased viewers’ levels of sadness.
Anxiety and depression can strongly affect how someone sleeps. Lack of sleep can produce feelings of depression and anxiety. ASMR can contribute to a good night’s sleep by increasing calmness and reducing sadness or anxiety.
Preliminary research data suggest that ASMR may provide relief for sufferers of chronic pain. Around 50% of studied people had chronic or some kind of pain. This group reported positive changes to the level of pain following ASMR.
How to use ASMR
With its close links to mindfulness ASMR can also be used as a similar relaxing and sensory sleep-enhancing experience. The same can be said for Meditation - ASMR may bring about a similar state of relaxation, sensory awareness, and emotional wellbeing.
Visualizing ASMR experiences can also work. Rather than actually seeing, hearing, touching, or smelling the experience, you simply imagine it vividly to get a similar result.
Recording and listening to natural sounds such as the weather, the sea, or a stream may also relax and soothe you. This can bring on a peaceful state that will be ideal for falling asleep.
Remember that not everyone can have an ASMR experience. Sound therapy, meditation, or visualization techniques may deliver something just as satisfying and equally sleep enhancing to those who are unable to experience ASMR. These techniques will bring lasting benefits to your sleep and general wellbeing.