In the softest corners of the internet, among Great British Bake Off recipes and Bob Ross painting tutorials, there is ASMR and its genre of soft-spoken, “tingle-inducing” videos. And given the state of... well, everything, we could all use a little softness. As much of the world is learning how to live in these strange, scary, and uncertain times of COVID-19, a growing number of YouTubers are creating ASMR videos to help people cope with coronavirus anxiety. This poses the question: can someone whisper away your stress?
What Is ASMR?
ASMR, short for autonomous sensory meridian response, and the videos dedicated to it have gone from a small, quiet subculture to a still quiet, increasingly mainstream genre. If you saw the 2019 Super Bowl ad starring Zoe Kravitz or are one of the nearly 36 million views on Cardi B’s whispering video for W Magazine, you have seen — and perhaps experienced — ASMR. A very surface-level dive into ASMR YouTube, made by creators known by the community as ASMR artists or ASMRtists, looks something like this: softly-smiling women cradling Blue Yeti microphones; hour-long “ear massages;” videos with words like “tingles,” “triggers,” “tracing,” and “tapping” in the title; close-ups of mouths loudly but intentionally chewing everything from gum to noodles to edible hairbrushes. Of course, none of that really makes it clear what ASMR actually is.
Put simply, ASMR refers to the tingly feeling some people experience in the back of their heads caused by certain sounds or visual cues. For some, it’s kind of like that feeling you get when you use one of those wiry, claw-like scalp massagers. Except instead of a physical scalp massage, the feeling is brought on by soothing actions of another person: the sound of something like typing on a keyboard, tapping on wood, folding and smoothing fabrics, unintelligible whispers. It’s been previously described as a “brain orgasm,” but many — specifically those who create and consume ASMR content — are quick to clarify that ASMR is not intended to be sexual. The usual intention, both described in the comments section on ASMR videos, as well as initial research on ASMR, is to create a calm, relaxing, sometimes sleep-inducing environment for the viewer. And as the world outside grows more chaotic, a quiet space created by your computer is becoming a necessity.
Can ASMR Help With Stress Or Anxiety?
While there’s little widespread research on ASMR and its effects, many of the initial studies affirm what the comments on ASMR videos claim: it’s calming, relaxing, and potentially an additional salve for everything from anxiety to depression to insomnia. Among the small but growing number of ASMR researchers is Craig Richard, Ph.D., a biomedical professor at Shenandoah University as well as the founder of the website, ASMR University. Bustle spoke with Richard via email about how ASMR may be helpful amidst anxiety related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Richard notes that research from ASMR University, as well as other teams “consistently show that ASMR helps many individuals to feel more relaxed, lower their stress, and to fall asleep more easily.” One such study is a commonly-cited report on ASMR from 2018 conducted by Dr. Giulia Poerio from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology. Poerio’s team looked at the psychological benefits of ASMR and found it comparable to practices like mediation. “What’s interesting is that the average reductions in heart rate experienced by our ASMR participants was comparable to other research findings on the physiological effects of stress-reduction techniques such as music and mindfulness,” Poerio noted in a press release of the report. However, those calming effects were most prominent in those who claimed to experience ASMR compared to those who didn’t report the tingly feeling. In other words, yes, ASMR can help with relaxation but tingles aren’t guaranteed.
Richard of ASMR University says this type of relaxation may be particularly helpful given the high-stress nature of the current coronavirus outbreak: “Anyone feeling an extra burden of stress or sleeplessness during this challenging time may benefit from watching ASMR videos, listening to ASMR podcasts, or receiving positive, personal attention directly from a loved one.”
However, as most every ASMRtist has written in their YouTube descriptions, these videos are not a substitute for therapy or other medical treatment. Richard of ASMR University also notes that while ASMR can help manage symptoms of stress, anxiety, or insomnia, “ASMR will not cure or prevent any causes of stress.”
What About Stress And Anxiety Related To Coronavirus?
ASMR videos set in stressful scenarios aren’t entirely unheard of. Searches for “ASMR TSA screening,” “ASMR drawing blood,” and “ASMR taking a test” yield hundreds if not thousands of YouTube results. In that sense, coronavirus-centric ASMR seems inevitable.
“The main goal of almost all ASMR videos is to relax, calm, and soothe the viewer,” Richard says, “So, people may be seeking coronavirus-themed ASMR videos to receive some helpful information and guidance about the pandemic in a very calm and soothing way.” However, as Richard, as well as many ASMR artists, have clarified, ASMR videos are not a substitute for accurate, up-to-date information about COVID-19. Fortunately, many ASMR viewers appear to understand that.
In a 2014 ASMR study of 475 participants, 98% of individuals said they sought out ASMR for relaxation. The authors of that study — Emma Barratt, a cognitive scientist based in Newcastle, UK, and Dr. Nick Davis, senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK — spoke to Bustle over email about why ASMR may be particularly popular while we practice social distancing.
While Barrat notes that ASMR scenarios set in high-stress environments are both less researched and less common than the millions of more traditional, low-stress ASMR videos, “there’s something to be said for taking an anxiety-inducing situation and transforming it.” “Many people are understandably anxious about COVID-19,” Barret says, “and maybe these ASMR videos provide some viewers comfort by way of either making the situation seem a little lighter or by reducing fear of the unknown.”
How Are ASMRtists Responding To Coronavirus On YouTube?
In one of the most popular coronavirus-themed ASMR videos, YouTuber ASMR Darling administers a fake ASMR-style test for COVID-19. She dons a medical mask and a green-screen background meant to look like a doctor’s office. Bustle spoke with Taylor, better known as ASMR Darling, over email about the video, the response, and how she’s using ASMR to cope with coronavirus stress.
Taylor says her video came as a response to comments she’d seen across social media ranging from people freaking out entirely to those making light of the situation, not taking it seriously enough. “I wanted to make an ASMR video that would help debunk myths around the virus and give real facts,” Taylor says, noting that she used the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as resources. “Also, it must be such a stressful and anxious process going through real-life testing. My video could help prepare people for it in a relaxing, calming way so they know what to expect.” Taylor recognizes the limitations of the video (“I am not a doctor or anything”) and emphasized her intention to help keep people relaxed.
ASMR Darling’s video is just the beginning of a growing number of coronavirus-specific ASMR videos. As cognitive scientist Barratt notes, you can expect to see more coronavirus content while searching for ASMR in part due to YouTube algorithms favoring currently popular keywords (e.g. “coronavirus”).
There’s a 19-minute video of a tortoise eating a piece of watermelon carved to look like a strain for coronavirus. (While it’s tagged as ASMR, Richard notes that this falls more into the “oddly satisfying” category than a traditional ASMR video.) There’s 10 minutes of YouTube ASMRtist Jerry wordlessly munching on green frosting-covered food shaped like a strain of the virus. There’s a video by Batala’s ASMR taking a lighter approach to a coronavirus-testing doctor roleplay. There’s a video from YouTuber Dean ASMR aptly titled, “ASMR- Doing Your Makeup In The Corona Virus Quarantine Room.”
Taylor says the response to her “Testing You For Corona Virus” video has been mostly positive. “There have been people who think video [is] a ‘meme,’” she says, “but it is meant to relax and inform!”
ASMR In The Time Of Coronavirus
I’ve used ASMR as a way to destress and fall asleep for the past few years. For me, it’s calming, verging on coddling in a comforting way. “ASMR videos are helping some people through this time!” Taylor says, noting that people likely feel scared, unsure, or cooped up while quarantined. “It can seem a little weird at first, but it really does help people relax, get tingles, or fall asleep.”
Davis, coauthor of the 2014 ASMR study, suggests limiting your daily dose of news cycle exposure. “As long as we all follow official advice designed to control the spread of Covid-19, we are already doing our bit to help," Davis says over email. “Instead of constantly following the news, it’s much better to do things that absorb our minds and make us feel good. ASMR is certainly one of those things.”
Emma Barratt, a cognitive scientist based in Newcastle, UK
Dr. Nick Davis, senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK