Tuesday 23 April 2019

Curing the curse of insomnia

Anne Cunningham is an insomnia-stricken adult who has turned to Auto-Sensory Meridian Response to help her overcome it.

Those who suffer from insomnia will do anything to get a decent night's sleep
Those who suffer from insomnia will do anything to get a decent night's sleep

Anne Cunningham

When I was a child, the sensation of someone brushing or fiddling with my hair gave me an immensely calm, soothing feeling. I would feel a slow tingle in my head, which would spread down my spinal cord and would almost send me to sleep.

The shop assistant in my local corner shop had beautifully manicured nails, and there was something about the way she held - almost caressed - the groceries, as she totted them up on the till, which also gave me that same relaxed, tingling sensation.

When I was older, and showing signs of being mathematically challenged, my parents hired a maths teacher for weekly grinds. Every Thursday evening he'd sit at my mother's kitchen table and reveal to me the mysteries of Pythagoras & Co. with such a soothing, hypnotic voice that I had to fight bravely to stay awake. It didn't damage my maths education, though. I can count to 10 without using my fingers and I know about log tables. They've got some nice ones in Harvey Norman. Canadian, I think.

Those warm, fuzzy feelings I got from soothing voices or the gentle touching of inanimate objects just seemed weird and I never gave them much thought.

Until recently, fighting yet another night of insomnia, my body craving sleep and my brain yelling PARTY PARTY PARTY, I decided to check out relaxation techniques on Youtube. And accidentally discovered a worldwide 'whispering community', who post videos of themselves speaking softly and calmly about any number of things.

And these videos send me off to sleep quicker than a truckload of Noctamid. Many of the videos involve role-play; the 'artists' pretend to be hairdressers, or beauty therapists, or shop assistants. It's a bit odd, really. At least that's what my daughter thinks. However, there are millions of 'odd' people like me tuning into YouTube videos for sleep therapy.

The phenomenon has been given a scientific-sounding name; ASMR (Auto-Sensory Meridian Response), although, apart from one thesis still not published, there's damn-all by way of scientific data to explain it. But ASMR has been getting some media attention recently, and I figure it's about to become mainstream. The world, it seems, is full of tingleheads!

The New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent (UK) and the Huffington Post have all run features on the rising popularity of ASMR in the last two years. The American TV show, The Drs, which RTE broadcasts here, has also run a feature on it, interviewing one of ASMR's most-watched 'artists' called The Waterwhispers Ilse. The TV doctors could only surmise that ASMR is similar to relaxation CDs of ocean waves or soft-spoken meditations. And it is indeed similar. But different.

I spoke with Dutch Waterwhispers Ilse, and asked her how young she was when she first remembers experiencing the "tingles". She was about five-years-old, she says, and - like me - she felt profoundly relaxed when her hair was being brushed, or if someone spoke to her sotto voce. (These are triggers, I've learned.) When she was older, she used to watch American painter Bob Ross's TV series, The Joy Of Painting on Sunday afternoons with her grandmother. And Ross's voice would inevitably send her off to the land of nod - although it did nothing to inspire her to paint.

In 2011, she discovered the whispering community in the same way I did - searching online for some relaxation talks - and found other people who responded to triggers in the same way. In February 2012, she took it one step further and began uploading videos of herself, recorded with her phone.

The rest is YouTube history. At the time of writing, Ilse has clocked up 23 million views and 160,000 subscribers. She has gone professional now, she told me. She can make a living from voluntary donations to her channel, and she's writing a book about her experiences.

Another doyenne of the ASMR community, Maria, aka Gentle Whispering, insists that she will never make ASMR her profession. Originally from Russia and now living in Maryland, USA, Maria's YouTube stats are considerably higher than Ilse's - over 78 million views, and 280,000 subscribers.

She told me that she too experienced childhood tingles in response to touch and to visual and aural cues. And she too went online to search for a relaxing voice to help her sleep. She posted three videos of herself in 2011, took them down (she said they were "embarrassing") and tried again in 2012.

Although it's obvious that she's receiving revenue from advertisements and donations, she vows not to give up the day job in a medical office. ASMR videos are for the "virtual community", she told me, and I'm quoting: "It's not real life, it's online." She figures that the "magic" will dissipate for her if she makes it more than a hobby, albeit a lucrative one.

Breege Leddy is the Senior Sleep Physiologist and CBTi Specialist in the Bon Secours Insomnia Clinic in Glasnevin. I was interested in a professional opinion of ASMR.

And the news is not good for ASMR fans. Breege's big problem with ASMR is the use of electronic devices in the bedroom. Smartphones, laptops and tablets all emit blue light which, Breege says, reduces our production of the sleep hormone, melatonin.

She goes on to say that there's more to treating insomnia than just relaxation techniques. Anxiety is apparently the main cause of insomnia, and the Bon Secours clinic looks at a patient's lifestyle, emotional health and psychological well-being. There is, it seems, no quick fix. And none of us should be even touching our electronic devices for at least two hours before bedtime.

Trish Nannery is another psychotherapist specialising in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and I asked her for a second opinion. I'm afraid it's not much different from the first. Trish likens ASMR to meditation but unlike meditation, ASMR only uses the visual and auditory senses. Good meditation practices involve more than just hearing and sight, according to Trish.

She figures that we've almost lost the ability to use our combined five senses, in favour of visual and auditory stimulants such as TV and internet.

We could step outdoors and take a walk, engaging all of our senses, but not enough of us do this. And then we attempt to find solutions to our sleeping problems in technology. Or worse, in pills.

Trish insists that sensory deprivation, through lack of outdoors exercise, contributes hugely to sleep problems. This echoes Breege Leddy's point about lifestyle; it would appear that we're manufacturing our insomnia issues ourselves.

There is a kind of intimacy about the one-to-one aspect of ASMR videos which many fans feel uncomfortable discussing. The videos appear to invoke a kind of guilty pleasure, despite their non-sexual nature. The anonymous man who collates ASMR videos for his website Soothetube, told a UK newspaper that "guilt" is the wrong word. "Speaking personally," Mr Soothetube says, "it just avoids having to explain myself to people who don't get it". Nicholas Tufnell, in a Huffington Post feature on ASMR, wrote "If someone walks in on you watching porn, it's easier to explain than if they walk in on you watching ASMR videos".

I agree. When my boyfriend walked in on me watching an ASMR "facial" video, he found me prostrate and snoring, while some foreign woman on my laptop screen removed cleansing lotion from her webcam, softly telling me how good my skin was. He thought he'd barged in on some kind of fully dressed lesbo-erotic freak show via Skype.

The clinicians may well shake their heads, and without reliable scientific data, who can blame them? But millions of insomniacs are using their iPhones at night, instead of swallowing Dalmane or dubious quantities of alcohol, to secure a night's rest. Is that so terrible?

I know I should exercise more and take time to wind down at night, but ASMR videos knock me out cold in less than 10 minutes. No lavender baths or yoga breathing or silent contemplation required. Nor do I need a benzodiazepine or a long, strong whiskey. Just tune me into a YouTube facial, or haircut, or let me listen to Maria folding towels for 20 minutes. She'll have lost me after five... zzzzzzz...

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