Elana Morris hasn’t been sleeping well in 2020.
Between the constant flurry of news about the coronavirus pandemic and the feeling of isolation brought on by shutdowns and social distancing, the 21-year-old University of Maryland journalism student finds it difficult to quiet her mind and sleep.
But Morris has a secret weapon against her quarantine-related insomnia: ASMR.
ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, is often described as a tingling that starts in the head and moves down the spine. Not everyone feels this sensation, but those who do say it helps relieve stress and induce sleep.
There are thousands of ASMR videos on Youtube and they vary widely in subject. Examples include close-ups of people eating crunchy foods, whispering, crinkling paper, tapping on glass and brushing hair. Though they started as a fringe trend around 2009, the phenomenon has grown in popularity with one of the most popular videos (a three-hour compilation of ASMR sound triggers) hitting more than 84 million views and celebrities like Cardi B, Aubrey Plaza and Zoe Kravitz filming their own versions.
Now, ASMR is helping people like Morris cope with the pandemic with coronavirus-specific editions. Before the COVID-19 era, Morris says she would tune into these videos about once a week. Now, she watches them nightly.
“It’s difficult to turn off the news feed in your mind,” Morris said. “ASMR is this sort of very quiet, almost childlike space that I can go to, and it’s totally separate from what’s happening in the world.”
People who make ASMR videos are called ASMRtists. One of those people is Lauren, who goes by Frivvi online and withholds her last name for privacy reasons.
Her YouTube channel’s popularity has spiked during the pandemic. FrivolousFox ASMR saw a 40% increase in monthly new subscribers from February to March when much of the country went into lockdown, she said. The trend has held up, with double-digit increases in the next two months.
“Tons of people are coming in and saying … ‘Hey, this has been really rough for me the past few months, and you are my one human connection that I can count on,’ ” Lauren said.
Another ASMRtist, known as Taylor Darling, has also seen her audience grow during the pandemic. Before quarantine, Taylor says her ASMR livestreams would average 900 viewers on Twitch, a streaming platform popular among gamers. Now, they get 1,200.
“Some people feel more lonely, more depressed, more anxious, and ASMR is meant to help relieve all of those feelings,” said Taylor, who also withholds her last name.
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Though ASMR has been discussed online for years, scientific research is limited. Giulia Poerio, a psychology lecturer at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, conducted a study published in 2018 that found people who say they feel ASMR demonstrated decreased heart rates and increased skin conductance levels – that is, the amount of sweat on their skin – when exposed to ASMR videos.
“It’s both euphoric and relaxing at the same time,” Poerio said of the phenomenon. “It’s very complex. It’s sort of a deeper level of experiencing emotion that not everybody has.”
Emma Gray, a clinical psychologist and ASMRtist based in the United Kingdom, believes ASMR can offer short-term mental health benefits.
“It seems that people have sought refuge from their mental health problems in the ASMR community for some time, but particularly during this difficult time,” she said via email. “The videos have become a very accessible way of dealing with the emotional challenges the pandemic has thrown up.”
To help people cope with the pandemic, Lauren and Taylor have each made ASMR videos specifically for a socially distanced audience. In one of Lauren’s videos, titled “ASMR for COVID-19 Anxiety,” she whispers to the viewer that they are not alone and that their feelings are valid.
“If we just stop, breathe and be smart…do simple things, we can greatly increase our chances to get through this unscathed,” she says while using her hands to rub a muffed microphone to create white noise in the background.
In Taylor’s coronavirus-themed ASMR video, she plays a soft-spoken doctor testing the viewer for COVID-19. Donning a white lab coat and face mask, Taylor pretends to take blood pressure and swab the back of the viewer’s throat and nose. The video chatter tells viewers the role play is “meant for relaxation and to raise awareness.”
Taylor also says she’s made it a point to whisper more positive sentiments in her videos, telling fans that “everything’s going to be OK” and “everything’s fine.”
According to Morris, ASMR videos don’t just help people fall asleep – they also make people feel less alone.
For Kevin Frazelis, a high school English teacher in New York, ASMR was crucial at the beginning of quarantine in March. According to Frazelis, who lives alone, ASMR served as “an antidote to the loneliness,” making him feel like “there was somebody else that could soothe me or make me feel a little bit better.”
The ability of ASMR to make people feel less alone in quarantine, Lauren says, means these videos can benefit anyone, whether or not they feel tingles.
“I have been quarantining since the end of January, and ASMR has been one of those things that, when I can’t go see family or I can’t see friends, I can put on a video and get that human connection and calm down and remind myself that we’re not alone,” she said. “It’s gonna be OK. We can push through this. And it gives you more hope.”