Could ASMR Be The Insomnia Hack You've Been Looking For?

Carolyn V. Murray

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ASMR is currently the second-highest search term on YouTube (right after PewDiePie.) So, there's a good chance you've already heard of it. There's an almost equal chance that you think it's a bit kooky and doesn't really have a place in your life. But if you suffer from frequent insomnia, then hear me out.

The big deal with ASMR when it first began being discussed publicly about twelve years ago was the phenomenon of “tingles” – specifically that certain sounds would give certain people a pleasant tingling sensation starting at the crown of their heads and moving down their necks and spines and sometimes into their limbs.

To tingle or not to tingle – is no longer the question

If you go to the description and the comments section of these videos, you’ll find a minimal obsession with tingles. What most people are preoccupied with is the difficulty of getting a good night’s sleep. Or perhaps difficulty is the wrong word because listening to these videos as a sleep aid seems to work like a charm for hundreds of thousands of listeners.

I’m grateful to count myself among them. I’ve had chronic insomnia for years. Which comes in two parts – the getting to sleep, and secondly, after waking up once, twice, or thrice in the middle of the night, the getting back to sleep.

I seem to recollect that in previous years, that even after a nocturnal stumble to the bathroom, I could return to bed, hang onto my drowsiness, and let my body find its way back to sleep.

But these last several months, I have found myself wide awake at 3 am. And still awake at 4 am. And still awake at 5 am. I should mention that I’m living on a very busy, noisy street and the traffic doesn’t subside until the wee hours. But I wear earplugs and usually have a fan going (not only for the white noise benefit – I also needed to get through a summer in Mexico with no air conditioning.)

I’ve also used my cell phone as a sound machine, checking out the soothing sounds of a babbling brook, or a roaring ocean, or a crackling fire. They had a mildly calming effect, but they weren’t knocking me out. (And those videos with the sounds of woodland creatures like frogs and crickets – who on earth can fall asleep with that racket in their ear?)

Dreamy, ethereal, binaural music was also a swing and a miss.

It was a rough year

I did have to stop and wonder – why is this happening now? Why is it so much worse than it used to be? Is it a pandemic thing? Is it an anxiety thing? I can’t rule that out. I certainly spend a lot of those nighttime hours going over the events of the day, the undone things on my to-do list, going over the details of my last Zoom conversation, thinking about random people and workplaces and conflicts from years past.

Not to mention thinking about the headlines of the past week and the past year – 2020 had its share of headlines, didn’t it? And 2021 looks ready to compete in every way. So, yeah, anxiety is certainly playing its part. And my wide-awake brain jumps from one scenario to another and is not paying any attention to binaural lullabies.

ASMR - when you’re ready to try anything

I should first say that yes, I have experienced the ASMR tingling phenomenon for most of my life. And like most people who have experienced it, I was intrigued and relieved when I found out that I wasn’t the only one who had felt this. It was an experience shared by millions – I’m not a freak!

But for me, it was also a serendipitous occurrence. I just accidentally crossed paths with a specific sound that set it off. I didn’t seek it out and I couldn’t deliberately create it. Interestingly, all of these ASMR videos do absolutely nothing to give me the tingles. I don’t care.

What they actually do for me is priceless – they work their magic on my overactive mind and by the time I’ve reached the end of a forty-five-minute video…you know what, I’ve never actually been awake for the end of the video. Somewhere between fifteen and thirty minutes, my mind waves the white flag and gladly surrenders consciousness.

But, but…. the videos are so weird!

Yes, they are. They involve people involved in activities and sounds that are called triggers and come in the widest imaginable variety.

You’ll find ASMR videos with people whispering. Engaged in “ear cleaning” a hard plastic ear replica with tools that you would normally find in a dental office. Shampooing and shaving and applying makeup. Going through the role-play of performing a medical exam. Tapping, tapping, tapping, with exquisitely manicured nails. Crinkling paper. Brushing with a toothbrush, hairbrush, anything with bristles. Puncturing plastic bubble wrap with a pin. Kittens enthusiastically licking a microphone that has to covered with something delicious, like sardine juice. No kidding.

The thing is, I personally can’t stand the tapping. And having a whispering voice in my room in the middle of the night is the very opposite of relaxing. But just because those triggers don’t soothe me, doesn’t mean they’re not perfect for a lot of other people. I gotta say, I’m partial to scraping and scratching. Different strokes. There seems to be a large audience for almost every trigger.

Talk about making the most of a trigger

One ASMRtist (as they’re called) I find fascinating is a fellow who has made several blow-drying videos with a hand dryer blowing on a small blue towel. The first video made in 2012 lasts for two hours and has collected 21 million views. Three years later, he repurposed the same footage and created a three-hour video, a ten-hour, a twelve-hour, a fourteen-hour, a fifteen-hour, and a sixteen-hour video (both of these last two got over one million views.) Same dryer. Same towel.

In the comments of his videos, the majority of his fans mention how they are transported back to a cozy, childhood memory, usually of being wrapped in a blanket, barely awake, and listening to their mother blow dry her hair in the morning. In the case of this trigger, it’s not only the sound but a near-universal response of memory.

For the purpose of encouraging sleep, the value of this particular brand of ASMR is not only that it’s soothing. It’s also incredibly dull to watch.

Dull is better

A lot of ASMRtists put on a visually entertaining show. And they are often rewarded with hundreds of thousands of fans and millions of views. Here’s the problem. If I’m watching in wide-eyed fascination, then I can’t simultaneously be closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep.

The more repetitive and uninteresting the visual is, the easier it is for me to keep my eyes closed, knowing that I’m not missing out on anything. There’s nothing duller than an ear cleaning video and I have watched more than my share of them. Of course, watched is not quite the right word. There’s no need to watch – I just close my eyes and sometimes wonder exactly which harsh, scraping instrument I’m listening to. But I’m seldom curious enough to pull up my eye mask and see what’s going on. It’s just not interesting enough, and that’s a good thing.

Don’t neglect the tried-and-true solutions

Speaking of eye masks, ASMR can’t substitute for all the big essentials of sleep health. A dark room. Direct light exposure in the morning. Exercise. A nourishing diet. Possible supplementation – magnesium is a key mineral affecting sleep. Stress management. Regular sleep and wake-up times. All that good stuff.

But we sleepless need all the help we can get. This particular hack is nonchemical, free of charge, and as close as your cell phone. Will ASMR help with your insomnia? I certainly hope so. Good luck and good night.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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