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One Man’s Plan: Relaxation technique has bizarre, opposite effect

  • This ASMR video features hair brushing and braiding.

    This ASMR video features hair brushing and braiding.

  • This ASMR video features hair brushing and braiding.

I’m working hard at relaxing. As I reach the twilight of my youthful 40s, I seek those moments where my yesterdays and tomorrows are less important than my todays. Mental exercises, desk yoga, mild sedatives, pirate-type drinking, Frisbee on the quad, silent garage karate and deep naps on quiet Sunday afternoons have given me glimpses of an inner calm, but none lasts very long. Counting to 10, quaint cups of herbal tea and reruns of T.J. Hooker aren’t much help either, although that Bill Shatner is a heck of an actor.

I remain skeptical of the more extreme versions of the pursuit of peaceful self-awareness, like transcendental meditation, sensory deprivation tanks and Crosby, Stills and Nash music, but I need to try something. A man can wiggle his feet, rearrange his sock drawer and check and recheck his Facebook only so many times before he asks, “What is this ‘relaxation’ you speak of, and how does one find it?”

It’s not easy being the unrelaxable type. When you see a parade, I see mountains of tickertape that need vacuuming. Enjoying a nice holiday meal? The dishes! Dear God, look at the pile of dishes. I’m not sure where people actually “live in the moment,” and I’m missing my map to get myself there.

A friend, Margaret, tells me about a technique she’s tried, a relaxation method that helps with insomnia and anxiety, something that’s gained popularity recently. She doesn’t offer much, other than that it works for her. She sends me a link with the description “ASMR Ear Nose and Throat Examination Role Play.” I click on it, but something’s not right. I expect a lady in a leotard teaching me how to “breathe earnestly,” but instead, I’m confronted with a young woman’s face filling the entire screen, calling herself “Doctor Feather.” Before I know what’s happening, she’s whispering and putting on rubber gloves, every sound she makes amplified and crackling in my ears. This feels wrong, like the deep bass soundtrack’s about to start any moment, and I’ll find myself explaining my browser history to my internet provider. I close out the window and step away.

I email Margaret back to make sure this is okay to watch. She responds with, “You have to stop smirking and actually try and ‘get in the room’ with the practitioner. I recommend headphones. I personally got pretty relaxed and smooth-feeling. That is very good, health-wise, to enjoy some of that every day.” I find headphones, an hour to myself and go back to Dr. Feather’s office for an appointment, suspending my disbelief. Over the next hour, I listen and watch Dr. Feather check my ears, open Band-Aids, take my blood pressure and whisper things in my ears like, “Fonzie,” “Spock,” and “I’m going to occlude each nostril.” Her movements are methodical, her words chosen carefully and her voice never above a whisper.

ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is a relaxation therapy based on the idea that certain sounds can produce feelings of calm, reducing stress and anxiety. The sounds are meant to give the viewer a “tingling” feeling, and as I dig more into what’s out there on the web for ASMR, “getting the tingles” is a steady theme. Some define ASMR as, “deriving pleasure in your head through stimulus.” I’m not sure Dr. Feather pretend-examining my hairy Hobbit-like ears is pleasure, but it’s not terrible, either.

As I poke around online, I discover a galaxy of ASMR videos – thousands of them. And these haven’t been watched a few dozen times – Dr. Heather’s ENT exam has almost half a million views, for example. I look for the most popular ASMR videos and find a woman named Maria GentleWhispering, who spends an hour fitting me for a custom suit, petting the fabrics, clicking the shirt buttons and softly clawing at a photo of a man in a suit with her lacquered nails. Her voice is soothing, but I can’t let go of this lingering feeling that even though I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t want my family walking in on me. Good thing I locked the door. It’s a sign I may never get over this sense that even though more than 2 million people have tuned in to hear Maria play with fabric swatches, I’m not relaxing – even if my skull is tingling like mad and I fell asleep somewhere between the shoulder measurement and the button selection.

A day later I see another video from Ms. GentleWhispering that’s been viewed 6.5 million times – a short one intended to induce sleep. That’s like the entire population of Indiana lulled into the Land of Nod by a blonde lady tapping her fingers on a hairbrush, saying things like, “I’ll help you drift away as long as you trust me.”

I watch a video of a man whispering almost inaudibly as he disassembles a computer mouse; in another, a man takes apart his laptop. I find a popular ASMR practitioner named Whispers Red, a British woman with auburn hair, who appears to be heavily medicated and standing in front of a wicker basket filled with fake Easter grass. She’s smiling in an off-putting way as she reaches into the plastic grass and pulls out a series of “tingly things.” She’s grinning in such a way that I’m terrified at what she might pull out of her basket.

To validate whether my growing doubts are unfounded, I sit my daughter down for a few minutes of “Halo Hair Salon,” a video that almost 3 million people have viewed. A red-headed young woman with giant white teeth tries to give us both a head massage in our kitchen. “This makes me uncomfortable,” my daughter says.

“It’s not creepy! It’s not like she’s nude or anything,” I say in response.

“There are things that aren’t nude that can still make me uncomfortable,” she announces as she sprints off. Such comments are neither productive nor supportive, but she has a point. There’s something about these ASMR videos that are having the opposite effect on me. After six hours of listening, watching and doing my best to live in the moment – just me and strange ladies pretending to brush my hair and shave my face – I’m less relaxed, focused more on why this isn’t working and if I should be doing this than on giving in and letting go. Watching these videos makes me feel like I’m two clicks away from comparing Greedo mask prices and planning my Brony weekend getaway with Glitter Gallop and Fancy Prance.

I’m no better at relaxing after my ASMR flirtation, but I see the appeal. One man’s glass of warm milk is another man’s aural-induced mental massage. I think my moment of bliss is somewhere in the middle. I just need to keep looking. T.J. Hooker marathon, anyone?

(Comments? Suggestions? Email Tim at timcoshea@gmail.com.)

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