HSPs’ heightened senses enable them to better pick up on subtleties from ASMR, like the soothing sound of someone whispering.
When I was a child, my mother used to take me to a healer to relieve my depressive episodes. The healer used to pray in a low, almost whispering tone, making repetitive movements with her hands toward my forehead. I remember that the whispering sound of her voice made me feel calm and peaceful, as well as produced a slight tingling in my scalp.
At first, as a highly sensitive person, I thought that only I felt this — until I discovered ASMR, also known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Then, everything changed.
The feeling is popularly known as a “brain orgasm.” It is a sensation of relaxation or tingling that starts in the middle of the head and can go down to the nape of the neck. The sensations provided by ASMR can be visual, auditory, or tactile, depending on the sensory triggers of each person.
I started to go deeper into the topic and realized that the variety of stimuli caused the tingling situation in my head at other times, too, such as when I’d go to the hairdresser and feel the same relaxing sensation.
I became curious about the effects of ASMR on highly sensitive people, but first delved into understanding ASMR more so.
The Most Common ASMR Triggers: Visual, Auditory, and Tactile
ASMR itself is not a clinical term or scientific concept. Jennifer Allen, who has spent years involved with ASMR in online capacities, came up with the term.
It became increasingly popular through YouTube videos, wherein people do quiet things on camera — like whisper, blow into a microphone, or brush their hair — and viewers react: they report feeling relaxed and sensations like tingling in their scalp. Even celebrities like Jeff Goldblum and Eva Longoria have released ASMR videos. ASMR podcasts have spring up, too. And some research has found that ASMR can help people alleviate stress and insomnia.
The phenomenon even has its own institution of sorts: ASMR University, which aims to unravel the social and biological aspects of concept. According to them, the most common triggers by category are:
- Visual: watching someone’s hands unbox an item, poke at slime, play with kinetic sand, or draw a picture.
- Auditory: listening to sounds of someone’s voice (such as whispering or gentle speech), hearing their fingers touching something, or hearing the sounds of the item a person is touching (tapping, scratching, or brushing).
- Tactile: being touched lightly in the hair, hand, arm, or back by a friend, partner, hairdresser, clinician, or family member.
Although not a lot of scientific research on ASMR has been done, some small studies have suggested that it may be tied to socially bonding “affiliative behaviors,” which have been known to release “happy hormones” like oxytocin. (With such hormones, your brain releases dopamine, which leads to increased serotonin levels — and oxytocin is the result.)
How Highly Sensitive People Can Benefit From ASMR
Researcher Michelle Woodall, a counselor and psychotherapist in Edinburgh, believes there is a relationship between ASMR and HSPs since HSPs already capture sensory stimuli coming from the environment — such as smells, tastes, touches, sounds, noises, colors, and emotions — more so than non-HSPs. Plus, since highly sensitive people are more prone to intense responses and situations rich in details, they’re likely to explore subtleties, such as the ones experienced through ASMR.
Therapist Fabiola Paul, LCSW, CCTP, and founder of Enlightening Counseling and Educational Services, agrees that ASMR can benefit HSPs. She has worked with many highly sensitive people and incorporates ASMR in her practice.
“Being highly sensitive revolves around how one processes experiences, whether in relationships or in their environment, and because of this, they are stimulated more easily,” Paul tells Highly Sensitive Refuge. “The whole point of ASMR is to help with relaxation by allowing a person to experience something at a lower frequency, thus allowing the body and mind an opportunity to relax. Highly sensitive people benefit from ASMR mainly because it is a coping skill where they can recover and release the stress brought on by people, places, and things.”
She says that after engaging in ASMR, many of her clients speak about various sounds being “satisfying” and sending a tingling sensation through their bodies, which allows them to tap into relaxation.
In a 2017 study, researchers found that individuals most likely to experience ASMR had higher levels of openness-to-experience and neuroticism (one’s tendency toward negative or anxious feelings). According to the Big Five Personality Inventory (BFI), people open to experiences are creative and imaginative, sensitive to art, and intellectually curious. So these individuals identified more with the ASMR experiences due to their greater receptivity toward sensitivity and sensations.
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Specific Advantages of ASMR
There are several ways in which ASMR works and how it can be advantageous to viewers and listeners — and particularly to HSPs, I think.
- Deep neurosensory experiences. Since highly sensitive people’s nervous systems have a greater receptivity to stimulation, this means that the brains of HSPs perceive, think, and feel more deeply and intensely. This high sensitivity refers not only to the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, but also to a high sensitivity to feel and process emotions. So ASMR can provide a fertile ground for HSPs to have enjoyable emotional and sensory experiences.
- Creativity and appreciation in details. ASMR works with intense sensory stimuli in order to generate strong sensations and feelings in the viewer/listener. The scenarios combine sounds, colors, voice intonations, and movements in a methodical and organized way. And because HSPs are already more detail-oriented than others, they’ll likely pick up on more creativity and details in ASMR videos or podcasts.
- Mental distraction. It is a fact that HSPs feel overwhelmed and overstimulated more so than people without the trait of high sensitivity. For this reason, ASMR can be relaxing to both the body and the mind due to the connection it forms with the person who is watching/listening. When a person watches or listens to an ASMR experience, areas of the brain related to social behavior, its reward system, and empathy are activated.
- Emotional regulation and mindfulness. Highly sensitive people have a very intense and profound emotional reactivity and, therefore, tend to be more empathic. The brains of highly sensitive people present a significant activation in the insula, responsible for empathy and for translating sounds, smells, or flavors into emotions and feelings. As a result, these people may be more vulnerable to being affected by burnout or stress — and that’s where ASMR comes in.
A study published in PeerJ noted that both ASMR and mindfulness involve an openness to sensations, control of attention, and emotional regulation. This occurs because during ASMR experiences, individuals focus their attention on an external stimulus that triggers tingling sensations, leading to a feeling of relaxation that increases people’s well-being.
ASMR is a form of self-care and an experience in which it is necessary to feel it in order to understand it. Since it is a multisensory practice that arouses different emotional triggers for each person — and since everybody’s nervous system reacts to stimuli differently — some people will benefit from it more than others. We all have triggers that arouse pleasure and emotion, but the challenge is to find the ASMR content that fits best for you.
If you want to experience ASMR for yourself, Paul suggests starting with YouTube. “Look for compilation videos displaying various sounds/sights — such as soap carving, whispering, chewing chips, or crinkling paper/foil,” she says. “To get the maximum benefit, create a habit of engaging in an ASMR video or audio clip once a day. Once you’ve built up enough confidence and competence, you can actually engage in your own ASMR activities to self-soothe.”
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