Can popular TikTok genre ASMR really help people sleep? –

Olivia White, 25, of Jackson prepares to go live on TikTok at her home on Friday, Sept 23, 2022. White provides ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) on TikTok. She started about a year ago and discovered people were interested. She now has 500,000 followers. A series of soft noises, whispers and personal attention, it gives some people what are called "brain tingles," response to a specific gentle stimulus. J. Scott Park |
People swear that by listening to the soft noises and whispers, tensions release and they fall asleep.
But does autonomous sensory meridian response, known as ASMR and increasingly popular on YouTube and TikTok, really help people sleep?
Experts express some hesitation, mostly for lack of documented proof, but note it could be a way to quiet the mind or bring about calm.
“There does seem to be potential for ASMR to help people manage stress and mood, with the greatest potential for those who experience the response,” Tyler Grove, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School, wrote in an email.
It could be one effective coping strategy, but it may not be for everyone, continued Grove, who has felt the tingles, beginning with a classroom guest or speaker when he was in elementary school. He cannot remember the details, but he felt a wash of calm.
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“The primary limitation of ASMR for sleep and anxiety is the lack of empirical evidence,” Dr. Tatiana Rodriguez-Klein, a sleep medicine specialist at Spectrum Health West Michigan, wrote in an email.
Also, a review of the research literature on ASMR indicates not all individuals who watch ASMR videos experience the tingling sensation, further limiting its benefits, Rodriguez-Klein said.
ASMR refers to a soothing feeling running across the scalp and extending down to the spine. Various sounds and actions trigger this response and “ASMRtists” on YouTube and TikTok present them through hushed tones, taps or clicks and gentle personal attention – a mock facial massage, hair brushing or makeup.
It’s unknown why only some people experience this response. Further, it’s not clear why people experience it in the first place, Grove wrote.
The phenomenon has only been named since about 2010.
“It’s similar to migraine headaches – we know they exist as a syndrome primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history,” Yale University School of Medicine neurologist Dr. Steven Novella wrote acknowledging ASMR as real in 2012.
“This is just another example of how our brains are fantastically complex and weird. How else can you explain the existence of videos of whispering Latin and wrapping paper noise on YouTube(?)”
Though recognized by the scientific community, research is not extensive. Once obscure, it is now mainstream, and Grove said with its popularity, he expects study will continue and grow.
Olivia White, 25, of Jackson goes live nightly on TikTok to perform ASMR as LivvyloveASMR. It his her full-time job, attracting more than 577,000 followers.
ASMR helped her through the suicide of her former boyfriend, Greer Brody, and to manage her attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, diagnosed only after the rigors of college revealed trouble concentrating. She is better rested too.
“It has totally changed my ability to function as a human,” she said.
She can’t imagine managing without it. “Being able to sleep is just instrumental to living, doing anything during the day, or operating.”
Outside of sleep, she watches it too – “If I am feeling anxious.” It regulates her nervous system, brings down her heart rate.
Others report the same, and thousands are drawn to White, interactive, empathetic and genuine. Leaning into what she recognizes sometimes seems odd or confounding, she will lotion a coconut, act as though she is brushing viewers’ faces and do some role play, recently and specially for October, in the costumes of famous characters or people, including She-Hulk, Velma from Scooby Doo and unintentional ASMR star, painter Bob Ross.
Grove said ASMR could be used in the wind-down time one hour before bed to promote relaxation, which can help people sleep.
The caveat? Watching on a phone or tablet exposes people to light, which may contribute to sleep disruption, Grove said. “Phones and tablets may also be psychologically stimulating because of all the activities we do with them.”
White says she will sometimes just put in her headphones and listen. Some ASMRtists, she mentions, put their audio on Spotify.
Dr. Virginia Skiba of Detroit-based Henry Ford Health said she believes ASMR is one relaxation method. So are breathing techniques and other meditative practices. “And different things resonate well with different people.”
Often, when she has insomnia patients, she talks to them about what they can do to quiet their minds. “I kind of encourage them to explore what works for them.”
ASMR is a subjective experience and cannot be generalized without “appropriate empirical support,” Rodriguez-Klein wrote.
Reduced stress and improved sleep quality are common self-reported benefits, she said. Anecdotally, people report watching a video before bed and perceiving a reduced time to fall asleep.
With insomnia, experts give preference to evidence-based treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy. Stimulus control and sleep restriction therapy, designed to eliminate prolonged wake periods in the middle of the night, are core components, she said.
Insomnia is diagnosed when sleep problems persist for more than three months, are present three or more days a week and affect daytime functioning, Rodriguez-Klein wrote. Insomnia often involves a process of the mind and body. “In which case use of ASMR or a single stress reduction exercise… will likely not be effective.”
Regarding stress and anxiety, “having a practice of positive coping tools can help with self-management of these conditions,” Rodriguez Klein noted.
A clinical level of anxiety might too require additional treatment or action, including behavioral change or medication management, she wrote.
This does not mean ASMR is ineffective, she said.
She would not advise against it if a patient reports benefit, but she would not recommend it, because of lacking clinical trials to assess efficacy.
“I feel like, in some instances, doctors can be more resistant to things that they don’t get paid to provide you,” said one of White’s loyal viewers, Krystyna Sills, a Virginia lawyer who says ASMR helps the quality of her sleep, typically three to four hours a night
Before she started watching ASMR regularly, she said she was getting maybe an hour of sleep. “So, it’s improved.”
Her therapist and her doctor support her in this, she said.
There are no data on ASMR as a relaxant, noted Dawn Dore-Stites, clinical associate professor and associate director of education in pediatric psychology at Michigan Medicine, but there is such individual-to-individual variability. She had a patient who would listen to hardcore rap to unwind.
“If it works for the patient, it works for them,” Dore-Stites said. “As long as it is not hurting anyone.”
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