It started when I was little. I remember sleep-overs with friends when we’d pretend to draw on each other’s backs and guess what the picture was. Or sometimes it would be a specific sound – the rustling of paper or a teacher’s voice as she’d read the class a story. I never spoke aloud of my “tingles”, in fact I don’t think I ever really put the feeling into words at all. It wasn’t until much later – at the age of 29 – that I finally found a name for it.
“ASMR” or “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” has since been coined as a term to describe the pleasant tingling sensation that would start at my scalp, move down my spine and sometimes leave the tips of my fingers buzzing. It’s a feeling of deep relaxation, but more than just the experience you get with a long soak in the tub or a good massage.
There’s a distinct “static-like tingling” on the skin and, it turns out, you either get it or you don’t. For many who’ve experienced ASMR secretly their whole life it can be a relief to finally have the sensation put into words and find out there are millions of others who feel it too. But for those who’ve never had an ASMR experience, they just find the whole thing a bit weird.
Sometimes I’d be transported into an ASMR tingle by accident. Perhaps I’d be speaking to someone at work or in a shop and they had a really relaxing voice which would elicit the “tingles”, or there was one time I had a head massage in Sri Lanka, which left me literally buzzing. Every time I had these tingles by accident, I was transported back to my childhood sleepovers or those times I’d sit in the classroom listening to stories, trying not to close my eyes and drift off into a state of tingly bliss.
It’s not sexual – which is what so many people find hard to fathom. It’s nothing like that at all, not for me anyway. It’s just a distinct feeling of pure relaxation which, up until recently, I’ve been too embarrassed to talk about.
When I started doing a breakfast radio show a few years ago and found myself needing to quickly unwind and get to sleep, training my body clock into a new rhythm, I started looking for meditation videos on YouTube. Specifically, I was searching for Yoga meditations – like the kind you get at the end of a Yoga class (“relax your jaw, let your limbs hang loose” etc etc). Instead I found this woman who did massage tutorials on YouTube – and her voice elicited the tingles like crazy. Reading the comments on the video was an eye-opener. Lots of people said they felt the “tingles” too. And that’s how I stumbled into the world of “ASMRtists” on YouTube.
There was one time, when Freya was a toddler and she couldn’t get to sleep, that I put on one of these YouTube videos to see if it helped relax her. She was barely speaking at the time, but I noticed she instantly went quiet. Since then, as she’s grown, she’s often asked for me to “draw on her back” if she can’t get to sleep. And the bit at the beginning of In The Night Garden, when the adult is tracing circles on the child’s hand – she tells me she always feels “tingly and sleepy” when she sees that. It seems my eldest child might have inherited my predisposition for ASMR too.
My husband, however, thinks it’s all a big joke. As someone who’s never had a tingle from anything other than the excitement of a Friday night beer, he just doesn’t get it. When I first started listening to ASMR videos on YouTube to help me sleep (when I was on early shifts), I used to make sure I’d turned it off before he came to bed, for fear of him thinking I was some kind of weirdo watching odd people doing random things on YouTube. Because, let’s face it, some of the videos are kind of strange.
And he did find it funny, at first. “When I came to bed last night you were fast asleep with your headphones plugged into your phone, sleeping to the sound of some Russian woman doing a towel-folding tutorial on YouTube,” he joked. That’s when I told him about the whole ASMR thing, much to his complete confusion.
Now, a few years on, he doesn’t bat an eyelid if – when I can’t sleep – I get the headphones out and fire up YouTube. He often puts the phone away for me if I drop off and understands why Freya asks for “a back draw” if she can’t sleep. Effie, on the other hand, seems to be more like her dad. She just laughs if I “tickle her back” and the thought of her lying still long enough to experience a “tingle” is laughable.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this post now, five years after first encountering the world of ASMR online. I’m not an active member of the “ASMR community”. I don’t subscribe, comment or “like” any of the YouTube videos, I don’t read the many forums I understand exist. I’m a lurker, watching the videos if I can’t get to sleep and reading the occasional news reports about the phenomenon with interest.
I guess I’m just getting more content in sharing stuff about myself that I know loads of other people experience too – even if they don’t say it out loud. And I think, maybe, I’m starting to care less about what people think of me anyway – so if they don’t get it, who cares?