A love letter to ASMR

Wednesday, May 6, 2020 - 3:04pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

In two months, I’ll be celebrating my five-year anniversary with an online community that has completely changed my life. From curing unhealthy sleeping patterns to relaxing nerves during an anxiety episode, this form of self-care might be exactly what you’ve been searching for during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s called ASMR. 

ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is the term for the tingling sensation people get when they watch this genre of stimulating videos. The “tingles,” which are caused by certain, sometimes indistinguishable “triggers,” typically begin on the scalp and run down the back of the neck into the spine. Common triggers used by ASMR creators include soft spoken or whispered voice, fluttering fingers, tapping objects and page turning. While some viewers enjoy role-plays focused on personal attention, like a haircut or sleep clinic consultation, others like videos that show everyday, uneventful tasks, such as stirring a cup of tea.

ASMR videos are characterized as extremely pleasant and deeply relaxing. If you’re a YouTube watcher, you’ve most likely heard of it, or maybe you’ve even watched a full video. To an outsider, ASMR might just seem like a trendy internet experiment where people whisper while eating raw honeycomb, or when celebrities speak softly during video interviews with W Magazine. 

To me, it’s much, much more. 

I stumbled across my first ASMR video when I was 15. Surprisingly, it was posted by Trisha Paytas, an animated, bleach-blonde Internet personality known for her click-bait titles and extravagant lifestyle (i.e. her bubblegum pink G-Wagon). In 2015, I watched her religiously. She felt like a virtual big sister to me, shamelessly discussing periods, ex-boyfriend drama and body image insecurities. I had finally transitioned from Bethany Mota’s cheesy DIY videos to more mature content, like Trisha’s promiscuous videos titled “My Sugar Daddy Experiences” and “Super Sexy Dress Haul!” 

That’s why her “ASMR // Jewelry Collection” video came as a surprise. I was clueless as to what those four letters meant, but being a Trisha groupie, I automatically clicked on the video. I expected to hear her high-pitched, ear-splitting introduction. But instead, the video opened with a soft-spoken greeting and the camera pointed at a diamond-encrusted metal jewelry box. Trisha’s hot pink acrylic nails were lightly tapping on the stones. She delicately shifted through her charm bracelets and dainty necklaces, softly jingling together the pendants and chains. This continued for 15 minutes. 

Once the video ended, I texted my best friend, a fellow Trisha fan, “Oh my gosh, did you watch Trisha’s new video yet? It was soooo calming.” At that moment, I fell in love with ASMR. I spent the next few months obsessively exploring ASMR videos from other creators, from hour-long hairbrushing videos to “best friend does your makeup” role plays. I found out my favorite trigger is tapping. I hate crinkling sounds. I prefer a woman’s whispering voice over a male’s whispering — but I’ll watch both. 

As I began watching ASMR videos nightly before bed, I noticed it fixed my inability to quickly fall asleep. I also turned one on whenever I felt overwhelmed or anxious, allowing the positive affirmations and comforting personal attention ease my tension. The gentle movements and soothing sounds coaxed my mind to relax and escape into a calmer reality. 

Even though ASMR was helping me cope with very real mental health struggles, I kept my newfound therapy hidden. I always made sure to wear headphones so my mom didn’t know why I was listening to someone whisper on the internet. And if she did knock on my door during a video, I’d promptly switch the tab to something more “normal.” I knew what I was watching wasn’t inappropriate, but why did I feel so dirty

ASMR-critics often categorize the genre as sexually suggestive, or even pornographic. They find the relaxing whisper to be intentionally erotic, and the so-called “tingles” to be sexual arousal. However, most ASMR viewers and creators detest this assumption and emphasize that the feelings of relaxation brought on by ASMR have nothing to do with sex. Other critics dislike the videos simply because the sounds make them uncomfortable, like nails on a chalkboard. 

Nevertheless, these people can be harsh. In my experience, when an ASMR creator gained a substantial following, a video titled “What My Family and Friends Think of My ASMR” would pop up on their channel. Oftentimes, especially from teenage creators, these videos would describe cyberbullying, damaged relationships, embarrassment and shame. Even if their channel had over 100,000 subscribers — an impressive accomplishment in the Internet Age — they’d often say their friends and family would just try to ignore their channel’s existence altogether. 

One of my favorite ASMR creators, Lilliana Dee, known as Lily Whispers ASMR on YouTube, described the response to her videos in an interview with The Pitt News

“I got bullied. The app YikYak was really big at the time and people were putting my phone number on there and I was getting texts in the middle of the night. People were calling me and telling me to whisper them to sleep. Kids are mean and they were doing it to be mean.” 

Yet, despite these hurdles, Lily Whispers ASMR continued making videos — as did thousands of other creators, even when the genre received torment and backlash. I watched my favorite YouTubers find confidence with their content, and slowly, I began to let go of my own embarrassment with enjoying ASMR. They inspired me to ignore those who didn’t understand it, and embrace the genre for its solely positive impact on my life.

These deeply vulnerable videos also reminded me there was a real human being on the other side of the screen. As I consumed more personal videos from these creators, I began feeling more connected to them as people. They aren’t obnoxious and loud like Trisha Paytas (who I eventually stopped watching), or flashy and unrelatable like most successful YouTubers. They’re normal people who have full-time jobs. Most of them film in their bedrooms, and don’t live in LA. With experience acquired from years of watching ASMR, I feel a sense of safety from their content. These creators genuinely care about producing videos that make their viewers feel calm and comforted, from perfecting their lighting and backdrop for peak tranquility to filming at odd hours to limit distracting background noise. And even though their “viewers” sometimes means hundreds of thousands of people, the best ASMR creators make it seem like they’re talking directly to you. 

In the winter of my junior year of high school, my boyfriend broke up with me without warning. Since I was the first of my friends to experience a break-up, none of them knew exactly how to comfort me. My mom was on a business trip to Florida, and my older sister was away at college and never had experienced a relationship. I felt like I didn’t have anybody who understood me. I was a lonely, melancholic mess. 

A few nights after the break-up, I logged onto my YouTube account and clicked my subscription box. Lily Whispers ASMR posted a new video: “(UNISEX) ASMR Helping You Through Heartbreak (Hair Brushing & Face Touching).” 

She just posted this a few days ago?! I thought. It was exactly what I needed. 

I curled up under a fuzzy blanket while Lily simulated brushing my hair and blotting my face. The sounds of shifting bristles soothed my body, which ached from days of emotional distress. Lily whispered post-break-up advice, reminiscing on how she coped with her past break-ups and reminding me to put the situation into perspective. She managed to make the video unisex, so any heartbroken viewer could connect to her words, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. 

I must’ve watched that video at least 13 times within the months after my break-up. Whenever I felt weak or inconsolable, I watched Lily’s video. And somehow, every single time, her soft words and motions would alleviate some of the devitalizing pain I was in. Whether it would put me to sleep or simply allow me to continue my day, that video gave me peace when I seldom had any. 

ASMR continues to provide me comfort in times of turmoil, like if I do poorly on a midterm, or if I’m feeling anxious about the way my body looks. Right now, like most people, I’m struggling with loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing has stripped our lives of intimate, human connection, and it’s easy to sink into total isolation and misery. 

When I begin to feel lonely, and my friends and family don’t pick up the phone, I’ll throw on an ASMR video. Even if it’s just background noise. Right now, when the world seems like a ball of flames, it’s important to feel comforted, and reminded that you’re not alone. If you haven’t tried out an ASMR video yet, I urge you to peak around the YouTube community and see what you find. It might just become your new favorite self-care activity, completely free of charge. It did for me, at least.