ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, refers to an experience where a visual or auditory stimuli produces “brain tingles”, usually characterized by a tingling sensation on the scalp or neck, sometimes traveling down the back, all the way towards certain extremities. Because it usually induces a physical touch response to something visual or auditory, it’s compared to synesthesia, which is when a stimuli associated with one sense, instead produces a response in a different sense (i.e. seeing sounds, hearing colors). Synesthesia is surprisingly common, although in relatively small forms. As a child, music would turn into vivid imagery in my head, with a consistent visual theme for different kinds of music. The effect was more vivid for music I would play with my violin – pressing my ear close to the instrument while I played made entire scenes and colors play out in my head. Some children smell colors, or associate sounds with images. Dozens of forms of synesthesia have been officially recorded. In much the same way, ASMR is quite common – but its therapeutic application is barely researched. That’s what we’ll go over today – plus, of course, the potential for ASMR as a tool for managing depression.
The short answer is that ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) can help with depression, but it’s not effective enough to count as a form of treatment or therapy. ASMR can be an effective tool for managing specific symptoms, including feelings of anxiety or discomfort, but it’s not the same as talk therapy. It’s also not guaranteed to work with everyone. It’s generally agreed upon that people who experience ASMR feel relaxed or positively stimulated, and it seems that ASMR can help deal with anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and feelings of discomfort. More than that, ASMR shows great promise in treating insomnia, especially if the insomnia is induced by overthinking, anxiety, or pain.
What is ASMR?
ASMR is a relatively common response to very specific visual and auditory stimuli. Think tapping, brushing, slow, and deliberate actions like folding towels or massages, watching someone slowly drink an ice-cold soda in a cool, sterile room with good lighting, or closing your eyes and hearing the gentle jingle of the ice cubes hitting the glass.
There is a large list of potential sounds and visual cues that kickstart ASMR. Anything from going up and down a plastic comb with a chopstick to hearing soft whispers can make you feel that “tingle”, which is then accompanied by several feelings going off in your brain.
ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, has been studied long enough to confirm that it exists and has a purpose – but the name itself doesn’t have a scientific background. Instead, it was reached through consensus on the Internet. Will colloquial terms ranging from “brain tingles” to “head orgasm” and “unnamed feeling”, the concept of ASMR had been floating online for years. The term was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, in a post on a Facebook group she created to discuss the feeling.
Allen explained that she decided upon the term to objectively describe the feeling she and millions of others had experienced – a spontaneous sensation, in response to an external trigger.
ASMR is tough to quantify or explain scientifically because it hasn’t been observed in a controlled environment. Studies surrounding ASMR have largely been conducted using self-reporting as a measure for the effectiveness of ASMR in producing feelings of euphoria or relieving low mood. Several scientists in the field of neuroscience proposed that while the feeling is probably real, there is no way of completely understanding what it might be until it can be better observed through brain imaging technology. Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, England noted that synesthesia existed as a concept as far back in history as ancient Greece but has only recently been studied enough to be taken seriously in the scientific community, having previously vanished into obscurity after brief attention was given to the idea in the 19th century. Much the same way, ASMR is likely to be significant in further studying how senses work in the human brain – but that doesn’t mean it’s a valid way to treat depression.
Instead, ASMR opens the door to better understanding why certain stimuli might be linked to conventionally irrelevant senses. Why do we feel a tingle in response to sight or sound? The answer might lie in the somatosensory cortex. This is a piece of your brain that basically links stimuli to senses, and as expected, there can be some crosstalk with certain types of stimuli. If you feel a tingle near your ear in response to hearing and watching an ASMR video on ear cleaning, chances are it’s because your brain already associates the sound to the physical feeling, so hearing it almost makes you start feeling it.
Hearing a barber’s shears go over hair might make you feel a sensation in your scalp akin to getting a buzzcut. Male or female voices whispering might make your neck hairs stand on end, as though you can feel the speaker’s breath on your skin. It’s not always an accurate match between the sound and the tingle, but quite often, there’s an individual physical response attached to a specific sound. Responses to ASMR videos may be based on experience, and susceptibility to ASMR may be based on how strongly you feel about certain sounds and triggers.
ASMR and Depression
As far as efficacy for depression treatment, there is nothing that suggests ASMR helps treat depression. But it can alleviate a low mood. Depression is not always a severe disorder – sometimes, people experience depressive symptoms as part of a temporary episode in response to a tragic event or too much stress.
While they still can’t “snap out of it”, mild depression can be treated in ways a more severe disorder cannot. ASMR may be one way to help people soothe their mind and feel better, especially in the evening hours. Much like hypnotherapy and mindfulness therapy, ASMR seems to elicit the same mental response that puts people in a calm state of mind, combatting anxieties.
It Shows Great Promise for Insomnia
Insomnia has many causes, particularly linked to pain and discomfort. Anything from arthritis and allergies to depression, back pain and Parkinson’s can inhibit a person’s ability to fall asleep or gain a healthy night’s rest. However, sleeping aids do exist. While medication is one option, another that is rapidly making the rounds is sleep hypnosis, as well as ASMR videos focusing on helping people fall asleep.
Surprisingly, for quite a lot of people, these videos help. They’re not the end-all-be-all of sleeping aids, but especially in cases of anxiety and psychologically-induced insomnia, ASMR videos can help put someone to sleep through pure relaxation. These videos essentially work by taking your attention off the pain and off the anxiety, and instead helping you drift off into sleep by quieting the mind. This can indirectly help with depression, as low quality of sleep is one of the contributing factors to depressive thinking.
Gotta Try Different Things
Regardless of whether you experience ASMR when scrolling through a series of YouTube videos or not, there is potential for ASMR as a form of stress management, and even in the treatment of anxiety. No evidence suggests that it has any meaningful effect on depressive thinking, but it may relieve a low mood in cases of mild depression. If you’re struggling with severe depressive thoughts, there might still be a chance that ASMR can help you. It could help you fall asleep, or help you relax or calm down if you’re fighting anxiety atop depression.
However, even if it doesn’t work for you, something will. We haven’t completely mapped out how different mental health conditions affect the brain, and how to best treat them on an individual level. There are a lot of modalities for depression treatment, and one of them is bound to work for you. There’s no way of knowing which treatments help and which don’t without giving it a go.
Treatment for depression includes therapy and medication. However, certain individuals respond better to certain types of treatment. Talk therapy is often broken down into cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and group therapy. Antidepressant medication comes in different types as well and is not always effective or necessary. Alternative treatments, such as certain types of movement therapy (like yoga) and acupuncture provide relief from depressive thoughts, from minor relaxation to feeling happier. Even rarer solutions like TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) show promise specifically on treatment-resistant depression.
Then there are lifestyle modifications to help treatment be more effective. Removing yourself from stressful situations in life, cutting out relationships that hurt you, quitting a job if it’s contributing majorly to your depression – all these things are important if you want treatment to work. Furthermore, adding positive changes like a better diet or a consistent sleeping cycle can help. Spending less time staying up at night and making an effort to start the day early with enough sleep under your belt can make a difference.