Is ASMR the secret to treating anxiety and depression? Science is starting to think so

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Eight years ago, 39-year-old Emma Smith suffered a car accident that would change her life — not so much the accident itself, but what happened afterward. Temporarily confined to a wheelchair, Smith was desperate for an antidote to feelings of anxiety and fear due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

While searching Youtube for relaxing videos, she found a solution: a video of a woman whispering. “I felt the tingly sensation from the videos I saw, and after looking up ASMR, I realized it was the name for the feeling I have experienced my whole life and that others feel too,” Smith said from London, where she’s returned after doing a live ASMR reading at a pop-up headphone shop called Even. “I felt a connection through the videos.”

The connection Smith felt then — and still does — led her to form her own YouTube ASMR channel, which she records from the garden shed outside her South London home under the name WhispersRed. The ASMRtists YouTube Channel has over half a million followers and dozens of videos with millions of views.

The feeling she’s creating is what’s referred to as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASRM. Described as “low-grade euphoria” and “brain tingles,” it’s a feeling of calmness and serenity that begins as a tingling in the head and works its way down the spine. Those who experience ASMR, like Smith, report being activated by a variety of triggers — both auditory and visual — and experiencing joy and peace.

Whispering is one of nine triggers identified in a March 2015 study from Swansea University on the phenomenon, which also explored crisp sounds, personal attention, vacuum noise, airplane noise, laughing, smiling, watching repetitive tasks, and slow movements. Of the 475 people studied, 82 percent said they used ASMR to help them sleep, and 70 percent to deal with stress.

While only a small number (5 percent) reported using it for sexual stimulation, in the absence of research on ASMR’s physiological effects, many still clung to the belief that the soft whispers and paper crinkling were some sort of sexual perversion. Last month, however, that theory was dealt a serious blow in new research from scientists at Sheffield University and Manchester Metropolitan University in England.

Published in the journal Plos One, the study explored the “physiological underpinnings” of ASMR in over 1,000 participants and found that those who experienced ASMR not only reported feelings of calmness but exhibited slower heart rates than those not watching. The findings are consistent with reactions to other stress-reducing activities like music and meditation. Evidence of the study also suggested that ASMR is not a sexual experience.

Dr. Tom Hostler, one of the researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University, said the study is historic. “The study found that people who get ASMR reported feeling both more excited and more calm, as well as less stressed and less sad after watching ASMR videos,” Hostler said in a statement. “It has been widely anecdotally reported that ASMR helps people to relax, but ours is the first published experiment to show these changes in emotion.”

Dr. Giulia Poerio, the lead researcher on the study, said the research confirms what those who experience ASMR have been saying for a decade — that it works. “We found that ASMR videos produce significant reductions in heart rate in people who experience ASMR — so we now have more objective evidence of the idea that ASMR is relaxing,” Poerio told Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s not just people telling us that ASMR makes them feel relaxed — their physiology is telling us the same thing too.”

Although researchers are just starting to catch up with YouTube, ASMR has been bubbling up in online communities across the globe for almost a decade. The term itself was coined by Jennifer Allen in 2009, then a 20-year-old nursing student who had created a whisper-dedicated channel on Youtube (called WhisperingLife) to find people who experienced the same “tingles” she did. Allen, according to ASMR University, initially created the channel secretly, but it wasn’t long before an online community began to coalesce — one consisting of individuals who had been experiencing ASMR since childhood but simply didn’t have a word for it.

Once a channel she kept secret, the group — and moniker — soon grew and spread across the web, leading to a community that now boasts more than 14 million videos of ASMR. Some show simple whispering like the kind that drew in Smith, and others are more complex. In recent years, it’s gone on to include role-playing real-life situations that trigger ASMR in those who feel it, such as checking in to a hotel or boarding a plane.

While there are certainly those who use the videos to relax or doze off, many report using the videos to actively treat mental health issues. Alana Saltz, a writer in Los Angeles, California is one of them. In a piece on Bustle in April 2016 titled How ASMR Helped Me Cope With My Anxiety, Saltz opened up about a lifetime of trying to figure out how to dissolve her paralyzing anxiety.

I had been seeking out unintentional ASMR for many years. Since childhood, I’ve found certain sounds and voices to be calming and soothing, but I had no idea there was a whole genre of videos designed specifically for that purpose,” Saltz tells Yahoo Lifestyle of her journey to finding it. “I didn’t know ASMR existed until someone mentioned ASMR in a comment on one of my own YouTube videos where I was crinkling plastic.”

Saltz had a few favorite voices early on, including LauraLemurex, Gentle Whispering, and Springbok ASMR. Like EmmaWhispersRed, they each have a channel with various triggering things, many of which have been viewed millions of times.  While some followers use it as a way to relax or unwind after a long day, people like Saltz and Smith have relied on it as a way to survive.

Two years later, Saltz still seems to have a clear grasp over why it makes sense. “ASMR calms me down by focusing my attention on something other than the anxiety, distracting me from my anxious thoughts, and providing comfort through quiet and calm sounds that I enjoy,” she told Yahoo Lifestyle. “Meditation has similar effects, so I would say it’s not far from that, if not a form of meditation in itself.”

Others, like Smith, have experienced success reducing symptoms of PTSD or lessening the consequences of insomnia. In a piece on Elite Daily, Megan Cary expressed gratitude for helping curb a lifetime of insomnia. “ASMR has not only given me hours of sleep back, but it has also given me hours of my life back,” she wrote. “I know it will only take me half an hour to fall asleep, so I no longer waste time lying in bed. I stay up later and spend time with family, do homework, write or do whatever, knowing I’ll fall asleep at a practical time and wake up feeling restored and refreshed.”

Smith says the practice is already being recommended by doctors to treat anxiety, a trend that she hopes continues. “The ASMR sensation teaches mindfulness and presence. We also experience a deep nurturing connection through the videos and a sense of community with others from all over the world. It also encourages self-awareness and an acceptance of our differences. Personally, I have come to understand that my sensitivities are my strength and that sound is a very important factor to our general well being.”

As with new trend, there will be those who disagree with the notion that it is a nonsexual and complex reaction to images and sounds. But to them, Saltz says: move along. “ASMR has a sizable audience, but not everyone responds to sounds in the same way. I think ASMR is worth a shot if you’ve found certain sounds to be enjoyable or relaxing in the past and want a way to access them when you’re feeling anxious or having trouble sleeping. If it’s not for you, live and let live.”

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