If you have access to the internet, chances are you’ve come across ASMR during your surfing. An online phenomenon that has become something of a craze these last few years, ASMR has become hugely popular with hundreds of channels on YouTube specialising in different themes. What’s it all about? Ultimately, regardless of what type or theme you like, ASMR is all about relaxation and “tingles”, the pleasurable “fizzy”, “static-like” sensations that are felt over the head and often down the spine in response to certain visual or auditory “triggers”.
What is ASMR?
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is described as the subjective experience of a tingling sensation on the skin and positive feelings in response to certain visual or auditory stimuli. These stimuli are more commonly known as “triggers” and can be anything from sounds, such as brushing, tapping and whispering, to personal attention and role-play. Even if you’ve never heard of ASMR, chances are you’ve still experienced the “tingles” – most of us are familiar with that pleasant and relaxing tingly sensation down the back during a head or back massage, a hair cut or in response to certain “nice” sounds. Most people would agree that sounds such as striking a match, popping bubble wrap and rain drops elicit positive, relaxed feelings at the very least, even if they haven’t experienced “tingles”. However, it is usually the new experience of “tingles” that prompts someone to experiment with ASMR to find their own personal “tingle triggers”.
ASMR and Tinnitus
Tinnitus is most commonly described as “ringing in the ears” and, although a high-pitched ringing is perhaps the most common type of tinnitus described, tinnitus can present itself with different sounds, including low-pitched “rushing” and even musical sounds. There is currently no known “cure” for tinnitus, however, commonly used management strategies include “sound enrichment” (e.g. use of white noise generators to reduce the obviousness of the tinnitus sound and make it easier to ignore) and relaxation techniques combined with some form of counselling and education (e.g. talking therapy or Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy) (Hobson et al., 2012). I have written another blog post that summarises the main tinnitus treatments here.
Stress and anxiety commonly occur at the same time as tinnitus (whether a person who has anxiety is less able to cope with their tinnitus, or the experience of tinnitus causes anxiety) – whichever comes first, it is generally agreed that some form of combination therapy will work best. In combination with sound-enrichment, reducing stress and encouraging relaxation can make it easier to manage tinnitus and achieve a better quality of sleep (Baguley et al., 2013).
While there is little in the way of scientific research into the real physiological and emotional effects of ASMR, its increased popularity certainly supports its positive benefits, which are known to include relaxation, reduced stress and anxiety and better sleep. However, one recent study by Poerio et al. (2018) suggests ASMR can have notable positive therapeutic benefits, including regulating emotions and reducing heart rate.
So we know tinnitus and anxiety often occur at the same time, and, there is increasing anecdotal and scientific evidence emerging on the stress-reducing benefits of ASMR. Based on the fact that one of the most popular categories of ASMR “trigger” is auditory, could ASMR be an effective tinnitus therapy? Not only can ASMR sounds provide sound enrichment and/or partial masking of the tinnitus signal, but, much like commonly used nature sounds (e.g. ocean waves or rain), ASMR sounds often initiate positive feelings of relaxation, calmness, safety and even euphoria.
Baguley, D., Andersson, G., McFerran, D. & McKenna, L. 2013. Tinnitus: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Wiley-Blackwell, UK.
Hobson, J., Chisholm, E. & El Refaie, A. 2012. Sound therapy (masking) in the management of tinnitus in adults (Review). The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Issue 11. Art. No.: CD006371. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006371.pub3.
Poerio GL, Blakey E, Hostler TJ, and Veltri T. More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology. Aspell JE, ed. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(6):e0196645. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0196645.