Suzanne Harrington was, understandably sceptical about cuddling a stranger, but left suffused with a sense of well-being
The cuddle therapist will see you now.
I enter a small fragrant treatment room in a building that hosts yoga, acupuncture, craniosacral and chiropractic therapies, gong baths, light therapy, 11 types of massage, and vegan facials (yes, I’m in Brighton).
On the floor is a mattress, covered in silvery fabric, and a single pillow, so our heads will touch. I’m greeted by Lindsay Meadows, my cuddle therapist, who is accredited by Cuddle Professionals International. I’m here because I found her flier in the vegan restaurant downstairs, and thought it might be fun to see what cuddle therapy is all about.
Non sexualised — though monetised — touch therapy for those who want hugs and cuddles without sexual intent? A joke?
No, not a joke.
“Cuddling relieves stress and anxiety, boosts the immune system, and creates a sense of well being,” says Lindsay’s flier. “You may choose cuddle therapy for the many benefits of touch, or to work on issues with intimacy or boundaries.”
Oh boy. So now we have to go to a therapist for a hug? Is this the end of humanity? And won’t it be excruciating, snuggling up to a total stranger? Yes, people snuggle up to total strangers all the time, but typically sex is involved. Can cuddling be divorced from sex? Have we monetised affection? Is this not totally tragic, as well as peculiar? Or am I over-thinking things?
Lindsay is American, and has a counselling background. She is warm, relaxed, and straightforward. She knows I am here to write about it, and that I think cuddle therapy sounds nuts. Once I have signed a form which says that it should not be used in place of medical or psychological intervention, she invites me to lie down next to her on the mattress and offers me a verbal cuddle menu. Spooning? Hair stroking? Head on chest? In the interests of authenticity, I say yes to everything, as she takes my hand and strokes it with her thumb.
“Sustained skin on skin contact is vital for the production of oxytocin,” she says. I panic a bit. Do we have to take our clothes off?
“No,” she says. “Holding hands is fine.” We lie down, my head on her chest, as she strokes my hair. She is wearing a scoop-neck top, so that I am gazing directly into her bosom. What happens if this causes client arousal? Not in me, I add hastily. This really couldn’t feel more awkward. She says it never happens — that people tend to just relax, or cry, which can happen when people haven’t experienced touch in a while — or talk to her, or lie and enjoy the sensation of being held and caressed, without having to reciprocate. It is unconditional and non-judgemental. Like a mummy, but not in a fetishy adult baby way. Just warmth and tactility, no strings.
I fall asleep, possibly from relief. That night I slept like, well, a baby, de-stressed, relaxed, suffused with a sense of well being. It’s a chemical thing; we are programmed to give and receive touch, but in our hypersexualised digital world, touching each other in a non-sexualised way has been so lost that teachers are discouraged from hugging children, and touch in the workplace has been outlawed for fear of it being sexualised.
Humans are designed to be touchy-feely. Touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, areas associated with reward and compassion. It is the first sense to develop at birth, our skin programmed to respond to emotion. Research from Arizona State University suggests that affectionate touch impacts positively on our immune system, mental health, friendships, relationships, even our longevity. We know this now, but in 1928, one of the early behavioural psychologists, John B Watson, told parents, “Never hug and kiss them [children], never let them sit on your lap.” Touch, affection and closeness made for “mawkish” adults. Instead, he advocated a peck on the forehead, or a handshake.
Professor Francis McGlone, a cognitive neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moore University, has researched our response to touch. Nerve fibres which respond to touch are spread under the skin like upside down tree roots. Linking these neurons with feelings of pleasure clarifies the importance of touch. “Skin is a social organ,” he says. “A growing number of studies show that the sensation of touch, particularly early in life, profoundly sculpts the brain. Young animals deprived of touch grow up with severe behavioural abnormalities. Babies fare better when they are held and touched frequently, and touch sensation can be altered in certain disorders. People with autism, for instance, often dislike caresses.”
Yet, these days, the things we touch most are keyboards and phone screens, which is why Irish life coach Grainne Carr runs cuddle parties. Her monthly three-hour events, Hugs for Health and Happiness, start with a workshop on consent and boundaries. By establishing from the outset that cuddling (in this instance) is not a prelude to sexual activity, individuals can relax and enjoy the pleasure of tactility.
“I started running cuddle parties after attending one and realising that it is wonderful being in a space where people can, with agreed boundaries, find peace, comfort and joy, simply from giving and receiving non-sexual touch with others,” she says. “I love seeing people suddenly start to become aware of their own boundaries, how to express them confidently and how to enjoy kind and caring touch, knowing that their personal boundaries will be respected.”
I ask if cuddling is a response to the impersonal sexualisation of Tinder culture. “If we’re lucky, we get a lot of nourishing, kind physical touch from our parents when we are children, but as we mature, unfortunately, our society restricts our opportunities for forgiving and receiving non-sexual touch,” she says. “This isn’t just a factor of the digital age, there are many people in their 30s, 40s and older who experienced little or no physical affection as children and that has continued into adulthood.”
All kinds of people – coupled and single – attend her events.
“A typical cuddle party will have a range of people, many who enjoy simply giving or receiving shoulder massages or head massages and that alone can make them feel connected to others.”
So what can you expect: All genders and orientations, groups, couples, singles, no alcohol or drugs, plenty of herbal tea, and your €20 entrance fee going to charity.
“At Cuddle Party you may experience an increased sense of well-being and belonging, a boost in compassion and playfulness, a decrease in blood pressure and afterward have a better night’s sleep,” advises Grainne. “It’s quite normal to walk in not knowing anyone and walk out of Cuddle Party feeling happy and at ease, feeling like you had a really fun and relaxed time being with good friends.”
She goes on to reiterate Professor McGlone’s findings, reminding us that “nurturing and consensual loving touch is good for maintaining healthy blood pressure, a strong nervous system and a balanced emotional health.”
So, there you have it, cuddling is good for you.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved