Whether you're a fan of dog massages, makeup tutorials, cake frosting, or things fitting perfectly into other things, everyone seems to have their go-to stress-relieving videos. (This author's personal favorite is a video of someone making wax fake-food samples.) Plus, there are endless YouTube compilations and an entire subreddit devoted to the weird-yet-satisfying. So how did we all happen to collectively stumble on these things? And why can't we look away? It turns out, there's some complicated psychology at work here. First off, there's definitely some overlap with the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), which is often described as a tingly sensation that some people feel in their scalp or neck while listening to or watching videos of soft-spoken voices or quiet, repetitive noises (such as typing on a keyboard). But even if you don't get that odd feeling in the back of your neck (or whispering just isn't your thing), you might still feel relaxed or simply content while watching your video of choice. In general, research has found that we're likely to seek out forms of media that either help us work through (or ignore) negative feelings or keep positive ones going. However, there hasn't been too much investigation into specific types of videos beyond their ASMR effects. One study, published last year in Computers and Human Behavior, found that most of us watch cute cat videos in order to procrastinate. But some people in the study — especially those with higher levels of anxiety and neuroticism — also reported that the videos lessen the feelings of guilt that come with that procrastination. And there's actually a scientific name for this concept: mood management theory. "It's the idea that genres of media get implicitly associated with certain feelings," explains Jessica Gall Myrick, PhD, an assistant professor at Indiana University Media School and author of the cat video study. In other words, just by watching things online, you start to associate those things with they way they make you feel. And, because we just watch so much stuff all the time, we're making those associations and managing our own moods without even realizing it. So, for example, while watching one random cat Vine that a friend sent you, you'll (not totally consciously) notice that it probably makes you feel happy or relaxed — as if, for just six seconds, the world is an okay place. After that, (also not totally consciously) you might find yourself returning to that Vine when you're feeling stressed or anxious in order to get back to that sweeter state of mind.
"Then, sort of out of habit, [you] turn to one type of media when you feel one way, but when you feel another way, [you] turn to a different type of media," says Dr. Myrick. So dog massage videos may be your go-to when you're trying to fall asleep. But if you're stressed about a big meeting, maybe you'll pump yourself up with a little "Formation." The reason you're looking at these videos now may be totally different from the reason you initially sought them out — and you might not even quite realize why they have a specific effect on you. Essentially, we're unwittingly building up our own self-soothing habits. And although we've basically been doing this forever, technology has made it possible to do it pretty much all the time. "Now that we have phones in our pockets," says Dr. Myrick, "we have these portable tools to regulate our moods." And that's not necessarily a bad thing! In fact, it's great to have an unimaginable number of puppy videos at the ready for a quick hit of stress relief in the middle of a bad day. But when one or two videos regularly turns into two hours of videos, or you're zoning out to makeup tutorials instead of venting to your friends, you might want to take another (more professional) step on your road to mental well-being and seek out therapy. "Anxiety is the type of emotion that we’re hardwired to feel, because it helps protect us in a dangerous world," says Dr. Myrick. "Our brains learn very fast what causes anxiety and what relieves it." That means that we're basically primed to fall down YouTube holes when we're stressed out. But it also means we've got to find a way to dig ourselves back out — after breathlessly watching one more video of pandas playing on a slide.