Approximately one in three people in the UK experiences insomnia. Mine is due to a generalised anxiety disorder – something that affects a further one in 25 people. That’s a lot of tired, anxious people. After two decades struggling with insomnia, last year I finally found a cure. It’s a little, to extremely, weird. It’s called ASMR – Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – a complicated term that refers to a tingling sensation that occurs when listening to certain sounds. It really is a Youtube phenomenon.
ASMR videos feature pleasant looking women gently tapping objects and whispering mostly nonsense into hyper sensitive microphones that amplify sounds. The videos typically last around 30 minutes, but I’ve never made it through a full video because I fall into an uncharacteristically deep sleep – usually with my phone in my hand like a true child of modern media.
My favourite ASMRtists, and I do have favourites, are from Russia (Maria, who goes by the moniker Gentle Whispering) and the Czech Republic (Olivia, who goes by Olivia Kissper) and their accents play a big role in my falling asleep. Actually, I believe Olivia to be the unsung hero of the ASMR community. She lives in Costa Rica now and has a degree in psychology, and yes, it does elevate the content of her videos.
Watching these videos makes me feel instantly calm; it’s like meditating or being hypnotised. I have grappled with the idea that ASMR is some kind of cult with psychic powers, or a group of human-acting aliens infiltrating my subconscious and I harbour fear that one day, I’ll commit some terrible ASMR-related crime and get sent to prison but win my appeal on the basis of psychological indoctrination. The good news is: I’m much less tired.
The various actions and simulations the women perform in the videos that send me to la la land include: tapping wood, tapping glass, peeling apart tissues, writing or drawing on paper with a pencil, a pen, or make my dreams come true: a marker pen (gaaaaaah). They do all sorts of fake treatments too that they call ‘Personal Attention’ practices, for example pretending to give you a facial and pretending to slowly wipe your face with cotton pads while whispering about the benefits of natural products and telling you that you have perfect skin. Also pretending to brush your hair, or give you a massage, or simulate an eye test. The dedicated ASMRtists upload new videos fortnightly, so there’s always new material. I have a healthy social life, I promise.
While it may sound absurd, ASMR is gaining traction in serious places. It was recently recognised as a thing by the BBC, and also a science division in Sheffield – where they are looking into the biology behind the trance-like state that ASMR induces. Results, thus far, have been inconclusive. But some videos have racked up 13 million views, so the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
When I show people ASMR videos, they have two very distant reactions. Either: “What the hell is this, this is so creepy, why is it so sexual, I don’t get it, you’re really weird.” Or: “Oh my god, I feel like I’m brain orgasming, I’m addicted, I’ve never felt like this before, thank you.” And I know which category I’d rather be in.
I’ve endured insomnia, brought on by anxiety, since I was about six. Back then I couldn’t sleep because I was scared of monsters and ghosts, so I’d make my older brother hold my hand across the gap between our single beds, which made me feel protected and helped me to relax enough to fall asleep. I was six and he was eight. Sweetly, he continued to do this until I was about 10 and he was 12, even though it was obviously very lame. Then he moved into another bedroom so I had to find new ways of managing my fear. Sadly, my mother is not Russian. So, I would go into my parents’ bedroom nightly at 2am, 3am, 4am with, “Muuuuuuum, I can’t sleep”, resulting in a lot of days off school, falling asleep in lessons, and getting told off for not concentrating.
After watching The Ring at about 13 years old, I couldn’t sleep for three straight years – fuck you Samara. I’m exaggerating of course, and I admit it, but sounding like you’re exaggerating is a big problem when you have insomnia. Because often people don’t believe me when I say I’ve only had three hours sleep the night before. They either think or say “yeah right, I’m sure you slept more than you think you did.” And also, no one cares.
The variables have to be exactly right too in order for me to have any chance of sleeping. You might call this borderline obsessive compulsive, but I have to sleep with the window ajar, even when it’s absolutely freezing, because I need a breeze. And I can’t sleep in any kind of trouser or long legged pyjama; I need to have bare legs. And I have to wear big pants, which sounds silly, but unless I’m wearing pants that cover my entire bottom, I’ll be awake all night. And the wardrobe has to be shut.
I am also a very light sleeper, so I’ll wake up when someone in the next room switches the light on, or when someone washes their hands in the flat above me, or if, god forbid, anyone should try to hug me in the night. Neither, perhaps most annoyingly, can I fall asleep in a drunken heap after a night out.
Yes, woe is me. So I’ve been tip toeing around sleep and not having much luck for the last 20 years. But that's all in the past, I’m over it now, because now I get into bed confidently, turn down the brightness on my phone, search for my favourite ASMRtist, and away we go...