science of us

I Can’t Hear My Anxiety Over the Brain Tingles

Photo: Charles Thatcher/Getty Images

I softly rock my daughter to sleep singing an old Irish folk song as she tries her best to resist, but she’s too weak for my soft “hushes,” and gentle stroking of her cheek. Her breaths grow slower and deeper. Her eyelids flutter. As her eyes finally stick closed and her miniature fists uncurl, I lay her in her crib.

“Sleep well darling,” I whisper. “I love you.” I close the door.

Then I slide into bed next to my husband, pop some headphones in and press play on an unfinished YouTube video. A young woman with a lilting Russian accent smiles sweetly into the camera as she strokes the screen.

“Are you having trouble falling asleep?” she asks as a strategically placed light glows in her concerned eyes. Tapping perfectly manicured fingernails on a candle she adds, “Don’t worry, I am here to take care of you.”

For the next 44 minutes, I watch as Maria Viktorovna, more commonly known by her YouTube channel’s name, Gentle Whispering ASMR, applies makeup on me.

“I just love your beautiful blue eyes,” she says wrinkling her nose as she impishly smiles and pulls out a mascara brush. I have brown eyes, but I suspend disbelief. It’s all part of what ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response,” viewers make for themselves. Holding the glowing rectangle of warm light loosely in my hands she peers at me, whispering between a staccato of closing eyelids. And finally, just as I am sure no stubborn neuron could rouse a single thought in my head, I turn off the video and collapse in sleep. Like so many nights before.

Over the past five years, media outlets have been, somewhat gleefully, exposing the swelling ASMR subculture as the latest in a long string of millennial quirks. Jimmy Kimmel learned about it from a group of precocious youngsters. A host of A-list celebrities including Cardi B and Jake Gyllenhaal have tried their hand at the trend for W magazine. But perhaps its most ascendant moment came this past weekend, when it graced the screens of 100 million viewers during the Super Bowl with Zoe Kravitz’s Michelob Ultra commercial. This quirk is built around the euphoric sensation — or “tingles,” to use the community’s vernacular — that many people express having in response to certain unsuspecting stimuli: whispering, tapping, lip-smacking, personal one-on-one attention, etc. It’s one of the stranger corners of the internet. One where women licking microphones is not sexual (as the community vehemently says), teeth cleanings at the dentist are not dreaded but a sleep-inducing role play.

Before the term was first applied by ASMR pioneers in 2011, it was just a sensation felt privately in the unplanned moments of a day: someone whispering at the library, a classmate tapping on his or her desk. Now, after years of Reddit commenters asking, “Anyone else have this feeling?” it is oh-so out there.

But maybe ASMR isn’t merely a trend. There is reason to believe it is a real, lasting phenomenon, one signaling deep millennial distress and a new form of self-medication. A 2015 study on ASMR triggers found that 82 percent of individuals engage who in ASMR do so to help them fall asleep. Since the advent of ASMR infatuation, there have been growing numbers of Reddit boards devoted to ASMR addiction. Scroll through YouTube comments and you’ll see prevailing themes: “Before ASMR, I had to take tablets for my insomnia, proud to say ASMR videos help me fall asleep a great deal.,” says one commenter. “I started watching ASMR videos when I was really depressed during my divorce and my depression totally disappeared,” says another. “I’ve had anxiety disorder for years, and this has been the only thing that calms me down.”

While ASMR fanaticism may have all the characteristics of a fleeting millennial phase, it has become a coping mechanism for an unfortunately durable feature of the millennial generation: our battle with anxiety. For countless ASMR viewers, the videos are like threads loosely holding together the viewer’s well-being. They aren’t a leisure activity; they are a sedative for a generation incapable of confronting silence. A generation looking for a voice to whisper to their wandering mind in the quiet dark of night, “Everything is going to be okay.”

Someone well acquainted with the needs of the ASMR community is the YouTube video creator GibiASMR. With over 1,579,920 subscribers, 365 videos, and 399,496,095 views since she started creating content in 2016, she is one of the community’s more beloved ASMRtists. Gibi first started watching ASMR videos when she was 15 to deal with anxiety.

“I have an awful time falling asleep and oftentimes can’t turn my brain off when it’s time to go to bed. I used to distract myself with any YouTube video at all. I found myself gravitating toward relaxing voices, makeup tutorials, massage videos, then I found ASMR,” she told me. “If I didn’t find ASMR, I don’t know where I would be right now in terms of mental health or sleep.”

Gibi’s channel started as more of a hobby in college, a way to exercise her Film and Digital Media major, but has grown into something more of a ministry. “I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people explaining how ASMR has helped them, ranging from soldiers with PTSD, people with autism who use my videos to practice eye contact, people with anxiety, depression, insomnia, stressed students, parents with kids who can’t sleep, everything!”

Unlike other fantastical intimacy forged in the internet age, one need only scroll through the comments on Gibi’s videos to see that the relationship between ASMR artist and viewer more closely resembles that of a caretaker and child than voyeur and star. “My mom and my older sister used to sing and hum songs for me when I was little.” says YouTube commenter Cagezo, “I’m really sleepy right now. Thank you.” Lindsay Lopez agrees, “This video reminded me of when my mother sang me to sleep.” Says Tri, “This makes me feel all warm and cozy. Even safe.”

Gibi has a theory about why this is. “I think we are in a time of great mental stress. ASMR is an amazing option for people because it’s accessible, it’s free, and it’s safe. I suspect, and experience, that ASMR is tied to nostalgia and a childlike mental ‘safe space.’ ASMR provides that platonic intimacy that most people can only relate to how their mothers or parental figures made them feel.”

This theory isn’t far off from that of pioneering ASMR scientist Dr. Craig Richard. A doctor of physiology and cell biology, he has made it his life’s work to bring ASMR into the physiological vernacular. In 2014 he launched ASMR University, a resource center that collects and shares information about ASMR research, and last year he published a self-help book, Brain Tingles, detailing ways in which ASMR stimuli can be brought into everyday scenarios, from parenting to self-care during a stressful work week.

Richard believes the ASMR sensation is something deeply biological, part of the human psyche since the beginning of time. “From the day you’re born your brain needs a simple way to recognize who to trust. If someone’s going to pick you up and hold you, should you be combative or should you just snuggle into that?” he asks, “The main triggers for ASMR are soft voices, light touch, caring dispositions, caring glances, eye contact, everything you would want from a caring caretaker. We communicate safety. It’s something we need for our survival as infants but something we never lose as we get older.”

For his skeptics, Richard has what he calls a “fun little Google Trends game.”

“If you put ASMR into Google Trends, over the last eight to ten years there is a steadily increased interest in the United States. Here’s the game,” he says excitedly. “Plug in any other word you can think of that should have an increased trend over the last ten years and it won’t be anywhere nearly as consistent of an uptrend as ASMR.”

I played the game. Drones, bitcoin, gluten-free, Beyoncé — none of them were lasting trends resembling the ASMR trend.

“ASMR is not a fad.” he concludes. “This trend line tells me there’s something real about it. Diets come and go, exercise fads come and go. ASMR is real, it’s genuine. People are really feeling helped by it. The next question to ask then is why.”

Richard’s Google Trends game nearly stumped me, but I did find two words that have been steadily rising since 2004: depression and anxiety. During the same ASMR fanaticism of the last decade, countless studies have come out reporting the steady increase in diagnoses of anxiety and depression in the United States. The American Psychological Association’s estimates 12 percent of millennials have an anxiety disorder (almost twice the percentage of baby-boomers.) The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association published a study finding the rapid increase of major depression diagnoses in the last five years, (63 percent for adolescents and 47 percent for millennials).

Perhaps the emergence of ASMR has been an auspicious balm for a generation wrestling giant hurdles to maintaining their mental health. But more likely it’s a finger in the dike, a blaring alarm we’ll have to deal with, just not tonight. We have our earbuds in, and we can’t hear it over the whispers: “Don’t worry darling, everything is going to be okay. Sleep well.”

I Can’t Hear My Anxiety Over the Brain Tingles