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What ASMR Is and How I Use It to Ease My Dog’s Anxiety

Autonomous sensory meridian response videos, full of whispering voices and crinkling paper, send viewers into a meditative, relaxed state -- and they help my anxious dog.

Marybeth Bittel  |  Jan 8th 2016


OK, let’s just get this out of the way: I experience ASMR on a fairly regular basis. Now I realize this may sound horribly sinister, medically ominous, semi-depraved, or perhaps all of the above. But trust me, the true definition of ASMR is actually quite inoffensive. And I’m thrilled to report that it has led to an amazing anxiety breakthrough for our chronically skittish rescue pup, Maizy.

First, a quick primer. ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. You may actually experience ASMR and not even realize it. Ever felt a tingly, champagne-bubble-like sensation across the top of your scalp? Ever experienced a very calming, prickly feeling through your temples, perhaps even across your shoulders? Does having your hair brushed or washed at a salon make you feel relaxed or drowsy?

These are the many guises of ASMR – which is basically a harmless, spontaneous, deeply tranquil, almost meditative state that doesn’t require drugs and occurs in response to various “trigger” sounds or experiences. Those who’ve experienced ASMR will nod their heads in recognition. Those who haven’t may suspect I’m making this stuff up. In fact, if you’re simply not susceptible to ASMR, you’ll likely find its myriad triggers mind-numbingly boring, mildly silly/bizarre, or repetitively monotonous.

I confess that for me, such triggers often include ambient sounds like shoes clicking across the floor in a quiet room, acrylic nails lightly tapping a surface, even a calm, soothing voice explaining mundane details. Think of yoga instructor Priscilla Patrick or painter Bob Ross from PBS, with their quietly comforting instructional tones. Pretty riveting stuff, huh?

ASMR_Glossary2

The extensive, global ASMR community often leverages specific audio content to help promote relaxation, sleep, and/or daily stress relief. (Photo courtesy Marybeth Bittel)

Neuroscientist Steven Novella notes that ASMR is “similar to migraine headaches: We know they exist as a syndrome, primarily because many different people report the same constellation of symptoms and natural history.” Said another way, it’s hard to scientifically “demonstrate” a dynamic like ASMR. Yet so many people report similar sensations in response to similar triggers that the phenomenon is also pretty tough to discredit.

In fact, there’s currently a very sizable ASMR community. An array of free ASMR content is available across YouTube and Reddit – including audio and video content that features everything from cellophane crinkling, to softly spoken recipe tutorials, to holiday stories being read in a virtual whisper. This content continues to attract thousands of subscribers — many of whom struggle with daily work stress, general anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and the like. I myself became acquainted with the term “ASMR” while being treated for simple insomnia. A sleep specialist actually explained it to me, likening the relaxation phenomenon to a mild form of hypnosis. Having experienced the sensation for years, this prompted my first official “aha” moment.

IlseBlansertASMR

ASMRtists like Ilse Blansert (aka The Waterwhispers) produce a range of innocuous, relaxation-promoting audio and video content available via popular YouTube channels. (Photo courtesy The Waterwhispers YouTube Channel)

And that leads me to our sweet puppy mill dog, Maizy. We’ve watched her struggle with pronounced, deep-rooted nervousness and anxiety her entire life, and as I learned more about ASMR, an experiment began to take shape in my mind. I’m a long-time musician, and I’d noticed how Maizy would often appear calmed by deep, low instrumental tones as I practiced. So I started to wonder if certain pets might be susceptible to ASMR triggers as well.

I pulled up some of the free, inoffensive video/audio content my sleep specialist had suggested to help promote relaxation, including videos from reputable “ASMRtists” like ASMRNovastar and The Waterwhispers. I began to play these during events Maizy would typically consider stressful: stormy weather and having guests over for a visit. The videos I selected involved 1) a soft-spoken monologue about Christmas traditions, 2) commentary about dealing with work stress, and 3) a hushed reading of the children’s story Alice In Wonderland.

I’d play each video back-to-back and turn up the audio as Maizy reclined in her favorite dog bed; however, I didn’t alter any other normal variables. For example, Maizy wasn’t wearing her ThunderShirt; she hadn’t taken any sort of snooze-inducing antihistamine for her allergies, etc. That’s why I was amazed to discover that two things happened consistently: 1) Each time, Maizy was lulled to sleep roughly 10 minutes into the video sequence, and 2) her feisty brother Grant would invariably wander into the room, flop down next to her, and promptly doze off himself.

MaizySnoozin

Live-action photo of Maizy (so to speak) after listening to her favorite “Alice In Wonderland” audio for several minutes. (Photo by Marybeth Bittel)

Wanting to test this phenomenon further, I began playing this same audio sequence twice a day, every day — once in the morning, once toward early evening. I chose these specific intervals because both dogs are normally awake and very active during these times. For a three-week period, I observed and recorded the response while the audio was playing. I compared this to each dog’s behavior across the remainder of the day.

I suspected I was onto something when both dogs fell deeply asleep each time the audio played, then woke up and went about their business within 15 minutes after turning it off. I should add that by “deeply asleep,” I mean fully conked out: snoring, dream-running and yipping, with long, contented slumber-sighs. At one point, Grant was so out of it that Clarence the Labradoodle lumbered past the window twice and garnered no reaction whatsoever.

Grant_SnoozingAway

As a wondrous and much-appreciated side benefit, ASMR content appears to send feisty Grant directly into snoozeland as well. (Photo by Marybeth Bittel)

Now, I’m not suggesting that my results represent any conclusive sort of scientific evidence. But I will say that during times I need to help our dogs remain quiet or calm, I’ve taken to playing quiet ASRM audio and introducing a calming scent into the room (such as a burning lavender candle). So far, this has never failed to provoke pronounced relaxation in both dogs — and normally, outright sleep — even during stressful times.

Perhaps you’d like to try the same experiment with your own dog. I’ve included the links to the ASMR videos that worked for Maizy:

Maizy’s Anxiety-Soothing ASMR Playlist

Since this content is free, there’s not much to lose — and if your canine suffers from pronounced anxiety, there could be something to gain. If you stick with reputable ASMRtists like these, the content is generally innocuous, inoffensive, even mundane (as would befit content intended for pure relaxation). It would be interesting to compare your pup’s reactions, so feel free to share your results!

Read more by Marybeth Bittel:

About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.