The Long Read – Anxiety and ASMR

I suffer from chronic anxiety on which PTSD likes to surf happily but, when PTSD started in my teenage years driven and fed by extreme bullying, my anxiety has always been there. As far as I can remember, I heard my relatives telling me I was anxious but never really understood what it meant. I now do – but that’s another post.

I have learnt to live with my anxiety on a daily basis. I do have some freak-outs but I have a mother and friends who are good at keeping me grounded so it has never stopped me from moving and living abroad on my own for nearly a decade, from working, from having a life. Overall, I see myself as a cat: a control freak who only likes attention when I define the terms of it, otherwise I need to be left alone to enjoy solitude, or I’ll scratch everything in sight.

Anxiety isn’t too negative, except for one manifestation: the sleepless night. Even as a child, I vividly recall that once-a-week sleepless night when no could do: music, radio, rocking myself, getting up and doing something before going back to bed, reading, sucking my thump to soothe myself…I just wouldn’t sleep. I used to appreciate the next day for I would be so tired that all seems like a blur. No freaking out, no care for the world anymore, just me and going slow. No break of sweat for no reason, no heart-racing, no overthinking. A normal day for me after a night without sleep. However, as I grow older and take on more responsibilities, I can afford these zombie days less and less.

What keeps me awake, and I realised this a couple of years ago as I had a complete nervous break down, is my brain. Occupied all day, he is fine and for a long time I lived close to main roads or with a motorway yonder so there was something to distract him because at night, once the light is off, instead of enjoying the silence and peacefulness to drift into unconsciousness, everything goes bonkers.

“Now that we’re alone, how about we review everything single thing you said in your life and you regret, their consequences on you and others, how they perceived you because we both know this is still how they think of you everyday?!”

“No? Okay, so let’s remind ourselves of every single missed opportunity you had to prove your worth and snap a good come back to the bastards who took pleasure bullying you?”

“No, you actually have pity for them? Why? Because they were acting like such for they suffered themselves? Okay so you know the ‘little talk’ you want to have with that student/your manager/these parents? Yeah, we both know it’s not going to be ‘little’ so let’s rehearse it and plan for every eventuality. Especially, those when they get angry so you can snap a good come back that would shut them up.”

The hours I spent tossing and turning, getting increasingly restless, edging on the rage, wanting to scream out loud: “Shut the fuck up and let me fucking sleep!” The countless times I actually did it as my legs were burning up and started to sweat even though it was winter, the windows were open the water in my bottle was so call, it ached my teeth. Many times, I even resulted to getting up to shower call water on them so I could finally stop irradiating my bed.

Then I remembered the music of my childhood. There was noise that had disappeared over the years and it seemed to coincide with the increasing number of sleepless nights. I had music to fall asleep and throughout my teenage years hours of radio recordings on cassettes I was playing right next to me. I suddenly remembered that every single night without it, for this or that reason, was sleepless.

What I thought was wrong, I never went to bed and just fell asleep. I went to bed, put some noise on and fell asleep much later. I had always needed an early bedtime because it took a least a hour for me to fall asleep after I decided to go to bed. Sometimes, I had to turn the cassette around as 60 minutes were not enough. I used to fall asleep with people talking.

However, no cassettes in London in 2012 but YouTube on my phone on which I searched “soft-spoken”. I ended up on one of Maria’s (GentleWhispering) first videos where she teaches Russian in the most relaxing way I had ever experienced. That was my first ASMR experience. The problem was that I was in a very bad place, working in a very stressful school for which I had to leave the house at 5.20am if I wanted to have a chance to make it before 8.30am. Cheers London private transport and crap roads! I didn’t sleep for 3 days in a row, didn’t eat for 5 and ended up calling an ambulance with insanely high blood pressure at 4am.

I had a burn-out and ASMR which wasn’t called like that at the time became irrelevant. Instead, I realised that one of my favourite Youtuber’s voice, Stacyplays, was very soothing so I chose the longest videos and put my phone next to my head to fall asleep. It worked, no sleepless nights for weeks. Maybe even a couple of months. But, as usual with my anxiety, it gets used to everything so within weeks, it wasn’t working anymore and I have been taking anti-anxiety medicine since mid-2012.

I am fine with taking medication. I am not that type to distrust medicine, on the contrary, but I already have to live with anti-histamine medication every night because of my allergic background so already two pills/night when you are not even 30 years old is not exactly sending a good message for the future. When it is not three because of head-splitting migraines.

Then in late 2015, AMSR comes back in my life through a video by the Guardian. Maria and other pioneers have made it big. It’s not just a niche anymore but actually a sixth sense scientists are working on to understand it. In the video, a woman is speaking: Emma – WhispersRed. It’s the trigger. I didn’t experience much tingling with Maria or anyone else, just a feeling of soothing but Emma, her accent, the tone of her voice, it’s instant.

I spend the rest of the day, headphones in my ears, listening to every videos she makes. It’s the middle of the day and it’s when the tingles are here. It’s impossible to describe. I like the noise but I can’t get enough of her speaking. I then try putting her speaking softly on my phone the shelf above my bed as I try to fall sleep. I expect the usual struggle but nothing. I cannot even remember when I fell asleep. Sometimes, I even fall asleep with the phone still in my hand and my glasses on. No time to put it on the shelf and get ready. Two minutes in and I am out.

It works and has been working for the past nine months. I had one sleepless night in nine months. It’s a first in my life after 32 years of increasingly dreading going to bed, hating my bed, resenting the moment when I have to force my brain to disconnect. Emma does for me.

I have mentioned it my mum who just was snide about it: “Just boring stuff then”. Another time to someone in my family who told me “Aw, so you’re all about that ASMR thing…” but there judgmental amusement in it. I didn’t feel bad or offended, rather just decided it’s something I must do and keep for me. Not because I have to or feel judged but because it’s actually very intimate. It’s for me and who needs to know about it after all? They don’t get it, why should they? And why would I try to convince them? It’s inexplicable.

Some people think AMSR is sexual. Of course, they do. We live in a world that also thinks Victoria Beckham is a lesbian for kissing her daughter. Everything today that provides you with any kind of soothing or positive feeling is associated to sex. Also, as a gay man, I have learnt that what people don’t understand, they tend to diminish it and what best way to do it than saying it’s a fetish and some weird sexual fantasy.

As a gay man, I don’t listen to Emma talking because I am sexually attracted to her. On the opposite, I always make sure I never make the mistake of putting one of her video on as I am browsing for porn (Grow up!) like I do something with Youtube videos in the background. For me, it has to be completely separate and come to think of it, it’s incompatible. I am looking to fall asleep, not get aroused. I have Dean Monroe for that, thank you very much. Frankly, I don’t see how this could ever be sexual. At least for me, a gay man listening to women.

Emma and her ASMR work is shushing and soothing my brain. I don’t listen intensively, it’s just there like a mother putting a child to sleep with a story. I don’t care for the story itself, I just want a reassuring voice to help him with my restless, overthink brain. I tried other AMSRtists but they don’t work as well. There is a connection with Emma that is inexplicable.

I wrote to her to thank her as I discovered I started to softly stroke or tab on things during the day, in meetings, at dinner with relatives, or during long conversations. It keeps me calm and focused. I spent decades fiddling with things, twiddling my fingers, writing anything to keep me from overthink something else. Thanks to Emma, I have developed soft, delicate and silent ways that allow me to be able to look at someone in the eye when they speak to me.

She replied to my email very nicely and said we were all going through the same steps when it comes to ASMR. Some days, I even am thinking of making videos. Not for the views or the money – I have a job and hates attention – but because she has been talking about how therapeutic it has been for her, how good it feels to channel your energy towards something that will soothe you and others.

Reading a couple of comments on her and others’ videos, reading about ASMR, there is a common ground to all of us, something that Emma and other ASMRtists mentionned: hyper sensitivity to our surrounding. Stemming from my anxiety, I have understood that my impossibility to let go of the past, the mistakes I made, of the guilt, my inability to just let something go, to ignore what’s happening, my constant anger towards the world and the unfairness that is the pillar of human society, my need to take a step back in crowd situation because I feel overwhelmed…

All of it is hyper sensitivity. Day in day out, I suck up everything from everyone and everything: feelings, energy, reactions, consequences, interactions without having learnt how or have the time to process them properly and that’s what can keep me awake all night. Once all are gone, my brain finally finds the time to analyse them, to make sense of them and to encourage me to find a way to deal with them but by that time, I am exhausted and the last thing I want is to have to dissect the world and reflect upon my place in it.

This is where Emma and ASMR comes in. So I can sleep then think about the world the next day and write posts for my blog – that I can never bloody finish and post!


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