relax

The holidays are just about over, so you have a good excuse: relax. In fact, you always have excellent excuses to relax — you’ll be calmer and more at ease, and you’ll feel more in control of your life. Yet, as we all know, relaxing isn’t always so easy. If it were easy, we would likely spend a lot less on all of our addictions — food, alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, sex, and everything else we think we need to feel free — if we could immediately relax every time our jaw started to get a little tense. But the ways we react to experiences and how we hold stress are deeply habitual, and undoing those habits takes practice.

Good thing we can practice relaxing the way we practice any skill we want to be better at, and the benefits of this practice are heartening. According to the McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois, “Practicing relaxation exercises 20–30 minutes on a daily basis can produce, over time, a general feeling of relaxation and increased wellbeing that benefits every area of your life. When you feel relaxed and at ease, you feel more in control which leads to calm, realistic responses.”

According to Mayo Clinic’s site, “Practicing relaxation techniques can reduce stress symptoms by slowing your heart rate, lowering blood pressure, slowing your breathing rate, reducing activity of stress hormones, increasing blood flow to major muscles, reducing muscle tension and chronic pain,” and more.

Slowly, Western medicine is catching on to the health benefits of relaxing. The mothership of Western medicine, the National Institutes of Health, takes a favorable but professionally skeptical position on the effects of relaxation on different health conditions. They’re currently supporting a range of controlled studies on the claimed health benefits of relaxation.

Since I spend a lot of my stressed-out time at my computer, one of my favorite ways to practice relaxing is to play YouTube videos aimed to trigger an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) while I’m working. According to Wikipedia, “ASMR is a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli.” According to me, ASMR is weird, and you can’t really bring it up at a party unless you’re sure you’re talking to people who are comfortable with forays into the realm of Weird Things Our Bodies Can Do.

Not everyone experiences ASMR; those who do find videos aimed to trigger it extremely relaxing, helping to release stress and bring on delightful body sensations. Most of the videos I’ve seen feature an attractive person performing repetitive, mundane activities like turning pages, typing, tapping on wood blocks, crinkling plastic packages, and so on. Nobody can explain why these videos are so relaxing — if you have ASMR, they just are.

(Wondering whether you have ASMR? The Wikipedia page for ASMR includes a couple of videos intended to trigger a response. And to get an idea of how strange, and how strangely relaxing, ASMR videos can be, check out “Net gloves touching braille dots”. (Bonus: includes whispering in Dutch!))

In my experience, the key to letting these videos relax you is to give them the benefit of the doubt, no matter how weird you feel watching a video of the hands of a stranger fondle a ribbed box. The McKinley Health Center recommends adopting a passive attitude when practicing relaxation. They say, “Empty your mind of any thoughts and distractions. Allow your body to let go. Don’t worry about how well you are doing. You can best control the exercise by not controlling them.”

It’s also key to listen to ASMR videos through decent headphones. You don’t need super expensive, top-of-the-line headphones, just decent ones, because most videos use binaural recording to simulate a 3D environment, and the softness of some of the sounds (and their subtle, relaxing qualities) can be lost if they aren’t going right into your ears.

ASMR videos can also train you to recognize ASMR moments in real life, and thus to turn any old moment into relaxation practice. I recently experienced this while I was talking to a friend: as she was explaining something (I forget what — I was too relaxed) she held up one hand and made a kind of twinkling gesture with her fingers. I got goosebumps, all the tension went out of my jaw, and I felt like my spine was made of rippling water.

I can also have an ASMR reaction in response to voices when I tune in to “sk” sounds, and if the Ss are sibilant. This is a pleasant, free, and innocuous way I can relax while going about my mundane business — no need to buy anything extra, search for any kind of special experience. The very ordinary can soothe me whenever I remember to notice it.

The most enjoyable thing about these videos, I find, is how quickly and effortlessly they relax me. When I’m relaxed, I’m more present, more able to meet experience, from the mundane to the extraordinary, without tension or an agenda. If there’s any real way in which we might become “better” people, it’s by first relaxing, and these videos can help with that.

Here are just a few of my favorite ASMR videos on YouTube:

I like Heather Feather’s videos for the excellent quality of the sounds, the softness of her voice, and the range of content. In one 4.5 hour video, “The Top 120 Binaural ASMR Triggers: A 4.5 Hour Tingle Fest!”, she features the 120 most popular triggers she’s used in her videos. If you’re unfamiliar with ASMR and wonder how your body responds to the wide range of “triggers,” make your way through this video. You may become inexplicably relaxed while you watch Heather do extremely boring things (like typing, tapping on blocks of wood, turning the pages of a large book, making the same meaningless mouth sounds over and over — ambient noises we usually tune out).

I also like the YouTube videos posted by MassageASMR, especially this 10 hour video of tapping, scratching, and crinkle sounds — without any talking. I can listen to this video through headphones while I’m working and don’t feel distracted at all because of the lack of talking. (In fact, I’m listening to it as I write this.)

Another video I like to have in the background while I’m working is this one by DonnaASMR. It’s another no-talking video and features gloved hands playing with the rubberized ears of a 3Dio, a recording device that captures ambient sounds with high fidelity. For some reason, the tapping and crinkling sounds in this video are extremely relaxing to me, so much so that I sometimes have to take a break from my work for a quick nap. (If you like the 3Dio and prefer some talking, check out this video by Fairy Char ASMR.)

For links to many more videos, check out the Reddit feed exclusive to ASMR.