In an age of anxiety, influencers are cashing in with ASMR videos

Organizing cleaning supplies, make-up or boxes of soap may seem monotonous: tasks so boring that you wouldn’t film yourself doing them. But for Mary, or SouthernASMR Sounds, as she is known on YouTube to her nearly 205,000 subscribers, viewers enjoy watching her methodically tidy shelves in stores like Target, Dollar Tree and CVS, so much so that she’s recorded herself sorting through store chaos nearly 300 times since creating her channel in 2015.

“They love to watch me organize stuff on shelves,” says Mary, who doesn’t reveal her last name publicly. “It’s relaxing for them. It’s a distraction, too. Like, if I want to take my mind off something, I’ll just watch you straighten deodorant containers.”

Mary isn’t alone. She’s one of a number of YouTube creators who make ASMR videos, or videos meant to trigger the autonomous sensory meridian response, like a brain tingle, for viewers. Often associated with Bob Ross, the sensation is typically triggered by soft sounds like whispering, wrinkly fabric, tapping or fluffy brushes. In recent years, ASMR has gone mainstream with brands even creating ASMR ads — Michelob Ultra’s 2019 Super Bowl ad featured Zoë Kravitz doing ASMR — to appeal to the growing and attentive community.

But the popularity of ASMR now has little to do with brands cashing in on the trend. Observers of ASMR’s growth, like consultancy Sparks & Honey, and those in the community believe that the rise of ASMR is due to its wellness applications in a world where people may be more stressed than ever. In April, a Gallup poll found that Americans are the most stressed people in the world, according to The New York Times. For some, watching ASMR videos can be a simple remedy.

“It’s a free way to get to the deepest form of relaxation,” writes a financial analyst, who asked for anonymity so his coworkers don’t think he’s a “weirdo,” in an email. “It’s kind of like biohacking your way into a massage. Or maybe it’s deeper than that and it’s just nice to give up complete control when life can seem so hectic at times.”

In June 2018, The University of Sheffield released one of the first studies on the effects of ASMR, which found that when people who experience ASMR watch ASMR videos, their heart rates slow and they show an increase in positive emotion.

“ASMR videos do indeed have the relaxing effect anecdotally reported by experiencers — but only in people who experience the feeling,” says Dr. Giulia Poerio, a member of The University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology, in a statement. “The average reductions in heart rate experienced by our ASMR participants was comparable to other research findings on the physiological effects of stress-reduction techniques such as music and mindfulness.”

“People are totally stressed out and I think we are desperate for something to help us relax,” says Mary, who started creating ASMR videos as a way to destress. “This is just one of the most recent new things that people have gotten into.”

Of course, the ASMR community wasn’t born out of a need for stress relief. Those who experience the sensation say that they found out about ASMR by searching online for audio triggers or tingles in an attempt to define the sensation. Eventually, they stumbled upon Reddit threads about ASMR in the early 2010s. It’s there that the community grew quickly.

Per Reddit data, 2016 was the year that the ASMR community truly gained momentum on the platform. Now, the subreddit r/ASMR has 187,000 subscribers, with 50% year-over-year growth in posts. This past July, across all of Reddit, there were a total of 15,653 posts and comments related to the term “ASMR,” which is the highest it has ever been, according to the company.

While the community initially grew on Reddit it has since spread elsewhere, mostly to YouTube, where much of the ASMR content can now be found. “It probably wouldn’t have caught on at another point in time,” says Torin Geller, lead sound designer at the studio One Thousand Birds, which has in the last year and a half fielded requests for ASMR-like sounds from clients. “The internet, specifically YouTube, gave it that place to exist as a community.”

As the community grew beyond the dark shadows of the internet to be more normalized — W Magazine now has an interview series where they ask celebrities to do ASMR — it has also put a microscope on what was once niche. That attention can be a blessing and a curse. For those who experience the sensation, they believe making it widely known will help others become aware of its wellness applications. But that attention can also lead to mockery, as the content can appear strange for people who don’t get the sensation.

“The problem is that you end up with a lot of people coming to watch ASMR and they have no idea what it is,” says Mary. “It doesn’t work for them. It’s like it pisses them off or something and they leave these comments just raging at you, calling you names.”

Even with negative comments, the potential to help people feel better makes it worth it for Mary, who releases a new video almost every day.

“That’s the thing with ASMR, you have to buy-in 100%,” writes the financial analyst, of using ASMR to relax. “You have to let yourself give in completely, and I think there’s definitely something to letting yourself wholly enjoy something without any judgment from others, or even yourself.”

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