How ASMR helps foster the neural connections that reduce addictive behaviour
To experience the full story in ASMR, watch the video below:
February 1, 2020
I’m driving home from the club. I left by 11:30. The old adage is nothing good happens after 2 a.m. When you’re in recovery (from substance abuse disorder), nothing good happens after midnight. I didn’t have any drinks, but it was my friend’s birthday and there were some bands playing, so I went down. As I walk through the door at home I am agitated and a little lonely. I didn’t want to leave the club. I have a fear of missing out. I settle in on my futon, pet my dog who cuddles up at my feet, slip on my headphones, and fire up my PS4. I put on YouTube and click on the new video from SophieMichelle ASMR. As Sophie appears on the screen I relax, I unclench my jaw and my hands, tension leaves my shoulders and my breathing becomes deeper. Sophie talks softly in my ear about nothing in particular. In minutes I have gone from ready for the club to ready for sleep. My life has changed significantly in the past year.
Part 1 — What I used to be like
I have always felt the need to find the outer edges and limits of everything. On November 18, 2018, I found the outer limits of my own sanity.
I can tell you that an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown is as physical as breaking your arm. I know, because I broke my right arm twice the year before my own alcohol-induced nervous breakdown.
In the hours before my breakdown, I felt a shooting white light inside my skull. It was like bolts of electricity were riding the space between my brain and my skull. They would start at the brainstem and shoot toward the forehead. They didn’t hurt, but they felt cold. I had not slept in two days.
Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to detox from. Withdrawal without medical intervention (usually diazepam) can cause seizures and death. Too much alcohol in the bloodstream can have the same effect. I was in danger whether I stopped or continued drinking.
I was living with my parents and attending a full-time communications program, in which I was falling behind. I’d been dealing with the stress by escalating my alcohol intake. During October and November of 2018, I was drinking daily and had reached the point of physical dependence.
In the beginning, the alcohol had helped me to cope — with my social anxiety, with the stress of moving home and going back to college in my 30s, with the feeling that all my romantic relationships had failed.
It was Sunday morning. I had one week to go in my semester. I had just received an email from an instructor telling me that the feature piece I had submitted didn’t meet course standards. He didn’t say it, but I was likely to fail my journalism class.
I lay in bed, in my parents’ basement, drinking. I could not fail. I knew that my drinking had contributed to my lackluster performance, but I felt if I stopped drinking I would collapse. Alcohol was the only tool I had to manage my stress.
I went upstairs for breakfast. My mom asked me how I was. I said I was fine — like I always did. Then I did something new: I said, “Mom, I’m not fine. I think I might be an alcoholic,” and broke down. I started crying and shaking and couldn’t stop. I have never felt such high anxiety in my life.
“Ray, get in here something is really wrong,” my mom called to my dad, who was just trying to watch the BBC and drink coffee in the next room.
I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew I needed help. I thought maybe we would go to a crisis centre or the hospital.
I could barely form coherent thoughts. I don’t know a worse feeling than my brain being unable to focus. I was not really awake but unable to sleep. It was a living purgatory.
That morning my parents called a private treatment centre, packed me in the car, and drove me to Gimli, Manitoba. I am extremely lucky to have caring and financially-stable parents. Four hours after my initial breakdown, I signed some papers, hugged my mom, and was admitted to detox. The nurse asked me about my anxiety level with a worried look in her eyes. “It’s a nine,” I said. If I ever tell you my anxiety level is a 10, it means I’m dead.
The nurses pumped me full of diazepam and put cold cloths on my head. According to one of the men who was in detox with me, I sat on a couch wrapped in blankets for the first 24 hours staring straight ahead. When asked questions, I would only respond with, “Oh you know…”
My memory of this time is hellish. I could only focus for a couple seconds, so even watching TV was impossible. Every moment seemed to drag on for eternity because each moment was disconnected from the next.
After 24 hours I began to regain cognitive function and became aware of my situation.
I had agreed to 45 days of treatment. I was given a bag containing a mug, some pens, and a copy of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. I had never read this book before and wasn’t very happy about having to read it now.
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
This is Step One of AA’s 12 Steps. Never have I felt more powerless than I did locked in detox of a rehab centre, waiting to be declared stable by a mental health nurse so that I could at least join the rest of the addicts. In that moment I had already accepted Step One.
The day after I was admitted, I was talking with one of the other guys in detox and I realized that my parents had spent significant money for me to be in treatment. I told the nurses and staff they were con artists. I said they made money off of the vulnerable. I demanded to speak to my parents. I was told I would have to spend one more night in detox before I could have access to a phone. I had been declared mentally unfit. The only way out of detox was through the mental health nurse or in the back of an RCMP cruiser.
The morning of the 20th I called my parents. I said that I wanted to come home. I told them to get their money refunded. I said that this was stupid. My mom said that they were not going to try and get their money back because they had already signed papers.
Then my dad got on the phone, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but as I recall it went something like this: “You think I give a shit about the money? If your sister had cancer we would sell everything to save her. You’re sick, we had the money in the bank. We didn’t have to sell anything. If you want me to come get you, I’ll come right now and they can keep the money.”
There are pivotal moments in our lives that we’ll never forget. I knew this type of help would never be offered again. I had an opportunity to spend 45 days (that I would later extend to 60) in a facility that would help me to heal both body and mind. I knew that if I stayed I could not engage in half-measures.
“Well, they have a pool and the food is pretty good,” I said.
Part 2 — What happened in treatment
Reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was the first step in understanding my behaviour. The Big Book is the granddaddy of all 12-step programs. It was the first to propose the disease model of addiction. Despite its sometimes outdated social views, flowery language, and obvious correlation to the Christian God, I highly recommend this book.
I am still searching for answers about how and why I became dependent on alcohol. While I always liked to imbibe in alcohol, I had never before experienced a loss of control like I did in 2018. My 60 days in a recovery centre provided me ample time and resources to study my disorder.
I should note here that there is, of course, a margin of error when studying myself. I cannot claim that what comes after this is impartial, but I can share my experience that it might lead to the growing body of knowledge on addiction and brain function. I would also like to note that I have no formal training in medicine. I am a writer.
I had a roommate in treatment who filled our room with books. He was also trying to figure out where he went wrong. He recommended that I read In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, by Gabor Maté, M.D.
This book examines addiction as a bio-psycho-social dependence. Meaning that it has roots in our genes, in our thoughts, and in our surroundings. A big part of being in recovery is learning to socialize without drugs or alcohol.
Once I got sober, I found out that I was socially anxious. Recently I spoke to Gerald Verrier (Gerry) my counsellor from rehab. Gerry told me that on top of my substance abuse disorder there “was some anxiety.” He was hesitant to diagnose me with anxiety because he felt labels could be misused.
He said my anxiety is not something to be corrected but something to be managed. “You have had anxiety in your past and as far as I am concerned, you will always have anxiety. I think it’s part of who you are. I think it’s part of your genetics. I think it’s part of your upbringing. It’s part of your response to the world,” Gerry told me. I tend to agree with him.
At my worst in the fall of 2018, I had trouble being around others without physically shaking. In the chaotic months leading up to my breakdown, I’d chalked up the physical symptoms to stress and substance abuse. But in treatment, I still felt lurking dread and physical symptoms when in social situations.
In my 20s I had been a confident person with a large circle of friends. Now in my 30s, I was a wreck. It is amazing how quickly depression and anxiety can overtake an otherwise healthy mind.
I had thrust myself into a new and stressful situation when I gave up on construction and enrolled in a communications diploma program at Red River College. At 33 I was the oldest person in my program and nearly 10 years older than most of the other students. I had only a high school diploma and felt awkward being back in a classroom. Many of my classmates had some post-secondary and seemed at home. I struggled with ordinary tasks like using my MacBook or navigating due dates posted online.
In the middle of first year I broke my arm. In December of 2017, over Christmas break, I was sliding down a snow hill with my niece and nephew and went over a jump backwards. The resulting broken wrist required surgery and a metal plate. I returned to school two days after the surgery.
In June of 2018, I was wrestling with a friend. We went down and I broke my humerus clean through. My mismanagement of the resulting physical pain and stress exacerbated my drinking.
I was used to feeling like a very smart person, but in college, I felt dumb. I felt like an outsider when I was around the other students, like the old guy who shows up to a high school party. I had trouble talking about these feelings. I didn’t want to burden my family or my friends. I kept up appearances and told myself that a few drinks would help smooth things out and that these feelings would pass in time. As I now know, they did not… lol my bad guys ;).
Alcohol can alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, but it has diminishing returns. More alcohol is required to achieve the same effect until, over time, the underlying issues come to the surface and the alcohol turns from servant into taskmaster. Once this had happened, I had no choice over whether or not to drink. The only path at that point was enforced sobriety.
Once the alcohol was gone, it was up to me to learn how to interact with normal adults. This is why group therapy is so prevalent in recovery programs.
In his book, Maté talks about a region of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).
“It is deeply concerned with the assessment of interactions between the self and others,” says Maté. The OFC plays a large role, both in our lives as social animals and in addiction. The OFC works abnormally in drug abusers. “It emotionally overvalues the drug,” says Maté.
The OFC is part of the prefrontal cortex, located at the front and on top of the brain, behind the forehead. Our prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain where most of our higher functions happen. In the base of our brain, rests our more reptilian functions like breathing and heart rate. As we move toward the surface, we reach the regions that are responsible for our complex behaviours like abstract reasoning, love, and addiction.
In treatment we were required to attend meditation every morning. Most mornings this involved sitting and lying around while the counsellors played a 10-minute meditation on YouTube.
Meditation helped me to calm my mind. When we meditate we clear the mind of thoughts, meaning that we are quieting the prefrontal cortex. From the point of view of neuroscience, we are organizing our neural pathways. From a spiritual point of view, we are finding our centre. I needed my time in treatment to do both.
By the end of 2018, “you were just too scrambled to find a center that you could manage from,” Gerry told me.
In my last week in treatment I had to fill out a recovery plan – a reference guide for when I left treatment. It provided me with reminders of best practices so that I didn’t simply fall back into my old habits. In early recovery it’s crucial to stick to these practices. As part of my recovery plan, I included watching meditation videos on YouTube, the same as I had been doing every morning in treatment. On a whim I also wrote down watching ASMR videos, something we had not done in treatment.
When I got home I did everything in my recovery plan. I went to meetings, I continued to exercise, I ate healthy, I read recovery literature. I really wanted to stay sober and avoid another nervous breakdown.
Early recovery can be a lonely time. While all my friends were supportive, I knew that I needed to work on myself and that meant staying home on a lot of Friday and Saturday nights.
On one of those nights I put on some ASMR. I remember it was Gibi. She has a popular ASMR channel and when I searched ASMR on YouTube she must have been one of the top results.
I didn’t watch ASMR before going to rehab. The only exposure to it that I can remember came in college. Our advertising teacher was showing us content marketing videos. He pulled up an IKEA video that he said was in ASMR. He said this was a new trend on YouTube that was garnering the attention of advertisers because these videos got millions of views.
The video was a woman speaking softly and making a bed. This is typical of one type of ASMR videos that involves some type of mundane activity and soft-spoken dialogue. ASMR videos often has roleplay, like someone reading you a book or pretending to cut your hair. They feature personal attention paid to the viewer through a screen.
There is a second type of ASMR video called trigger videos. These are made specifically to trigger the physical sensation of tingles that viewers receive while watching the videos. Sounds like crinkling paper, scissors, cutting soap, or tapping on wood bring on tingles in some viewers. Tingles can also be triggered by mouth sounds and inaudible whispering. These videos usually just feature hands and objects with very little talking and no roleplay.
For both types of ASMR videos the viewer usually wears headphones in order to be immersed in the ASMR experience.
I don’t remember which Gibi video I watched that first night at home. I do remember that at first ASMR was almost uncomfortable for me. The sounds were too intimate. They made me feel like a baby being cooed over and I rejected that feeling. Gibi sounded very close to me, whispering in my ear. It gave me a minor tingling sensation. Some people experience them more than others. I rarely experience tingles and watch ASMR more for the feeling of calm comfort I get from the personal attention. But it took time for me to achieve that feeling.
Humans can alter the biochemical structure of their own brains due to a feature of our mind called neuroplasticity. Basically, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself. It is something no other organ can do. By thinking calm thoughts, we can rewire our brains to be calmer. By thinking happy thoughts, we can rewire our brains to be happier. By meditating we increase the mindfulness response. I was not super happy about being in rehab at first, but I had agreed to give it my all. I went to meditation and sat silently until I felt calm. Over time I began to look forward to meditation.
I assumed the same thing could happen with ASMR. This is backed up in the study: “Mindfulness and autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR).” This study suggests that the “experience of ASMR and mindfulness appear to be related constructs.” That is to say that those who are classified as mindful (there are tests for this) are more likely to be responsive to, or enjoy, ASMR.
Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept that teaches us to be present in the moment. It is recommended for addicts because so much of our lives are spent either thinking about the past or the future. In my addiction, I was always thinking about past mistakes or about future problems. Today I try to live in the moment and find myself to be much less anxious.
Stephen Smith is one of the lead authors on the aforementioned study linking mindfulness and ASMR. I reached out to him for comment. He declined an interview saying that he had bad experiences with his quotes being chopped up and misrepresented. Here is a full quote from a response that I received from him via email:
“Just to give you my two cents though, there currently isn’t any published clinical research showing that ASMR can be used as a clinical tool. I personally think that ASMR videos are best used as a supplement that could be used in addition to proper counselling (similar to meditation or relaxation exercises). I’ve been trying to make this point to reporters so that their readers don’t think that they can replace their medications or psychologists/psychiatrists with ASMR videos.”
While ASMR has been helpful in my recovery, I don’t want to give the impression that ASMR somehow cured me on its own. I also followed a strict diet, exercise regimen, and sleep schedule. I regularly attended both individual counselling and group therapy sessions. I won’t go into the details of my entire recovery here because I have chosen to focus on my social anxiety and ASMR.
My personal experience with ASMR has been that it has calmed my anxiety. ASMR affects the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) according to the peer-reviewed study: “An fMRI investigation of the neural correlates underlying the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR).” The mPFC is a part of the prefrontal cortex and is located above the OFC (remember the OFC earlier from Maté). Both the mPFC and the OFC are responsible for dopamine production and regulation as shown in the peer-reviewed study: “The Medial Prefrontal and Orbitofrontal Cortices Differentially Regulate Dopamine System Function.”
Dopamine is central to our understanding of addiction as nearly all addictive intoxicants affect our dopamine levels in one way or another. Too many intoxicants can cause the number of dopamine receptors in our brains to shrink over time. “Because dopamine is important for motivation, incentive, and energy, a diminished number of receptors will reduce the addict’s stamina and his incentive and drive for normal activities,” says Maté.
So basically, if you don’t have enough dopamine, you physically have trouble getting motivated. You get tired fast and you feel anxious and depressed. People in active addiction need to achieve sobriety in order to allow their dopamine to normalize and their brains to heal. ASMR may have helped to give little boosts of dopamine that I needed during my recovery on those tough Friday nights at home alone.
The mPFC is also related to social interaction and grooming in higher-level primates. What this means is that watching ASMR lights up parts of our brain that are activated during social encounters. You may remember from before that the OFC is also involved in social interactions. The OFC is what allows us to watch for emotional cues in the faces of others.
As someone who suffers from social anxiety, I sometimes want to be alone but then feel lonely. ASMR can bridge that gap. By watching a personal attention video, I get to be selfish. I get to be the center of attention while having to give nothing back to the person paying me the attention.
ASMR helped me to feel more connected to other people without having to be uncomfortable in actual social settings or put myself in situations where I was in danger of drinking to quell stress. I feel like this allowed me time to heal my brain in a safe and controlled setting.
Part 3 – What I am like now
February 2, 2020
It’s Sunday morning, I wake up at 7:30 happy that I left the club before midnight the night before. I have to go film an emotional support turkey for my Digital Storytelling class. I am in the final semester of my communications program. I was allowed to return after completing treatment. I had the presence of mind to email my instructors the day of my breakdown informing them I was entering treatment. Because of this, I was granted a medical withdrawal. This was both a blessing and a curse. I had to redo third semester including courses I would have passed but my semester was wiped clean meaning I didn’t fail any courses either. I am glad to have had my ASMR videos to lull me to sleep the night before. Without them I sometimes experience hours of insomnia before drifting off.
I am no neuroscientist. I have found information about regions of the brain that are affected by addiction, social interaction, and ASMR, and tried to draw links between scientific studies and my own lived experience. I theorize that ASMR helped me regulate dopamine production during a time when my prefrontal cortex was healing from substance abuse disorder. I also feel that ASMR helped me to regenerate neural pathways related to social interaction that I had lost when I withdrew into myself.
The community I found through my broadband connection is undeniable. “Connection doesn’t happen through the mind, connection happens through the heart,” says Gerry. He said this both as my counsellor and my friend. He told me that the bonds we form can make all the difference in the world. It can be the difference whether someone stays sober, gets out of bed in the morning, or decides not to kill themselves.
The sense of community that comes not only from the creators, but also from other fans passionate about ASMR keeps me coming back, putting on the headphones, and kicking back to watch my weird whisper videos.
Check out some of my favourite ASMRtists:
Personal attention / roleplay:
- Gentle Whispering ASMR
- SophieMichelle ASMR
- Gibi ASMR
- VisualSounds1 ASMR
- Articulate Design ASMR