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On Professional Cuddlers

I've been a qualified holistic therapist for ten years, and I'm still constantly humbled by the power of touch to soothe and heal. While holistic massage has certainly helped my clients deal with their aches and pains, I always felt that there was a part of the jigsaw still missing. After much research into touch - its benefits, and the impact of deprivation - I decided to open BeSnuggled, the UK’s first professional cuddling service. It seems like such a logical and natural extension to my existing therapy practice, and arguably no more odd than having a stranger lying on my massage table in their undies.

Professional cuddling started in the USA, of course, and there are several thriving businesses on that side of the Pond. A mountain of respected scientific research confirms that there’s a lot more to snuggling than merely getting close to someone. One proven health benefit of cuddling is the release of oxytocin. Known as the feel-good hormone, oxytocin creates a sense of well-being and happiness. In addition, physical contact with others can lower blood pressure and reduce stress. People love to be cuddled because it feels good and offers simple comfort. However, not everyone has a suitable cuddle partner; somewhere out there someone is in serious need of human contact, yet he or she has no one to turn to. That’s where the professional cuddler comes in, providing a safe, warm and non-judgmental oasis where their client can step out of their everyday life, re-discover the pleasure of non-sexual snuggling and enjoy the many physiological and psychological benefits of touch. Simple and beautiful.

Touch is one of the most essential elements of human development: a profound method of communication, a critical component of the health and growth of infants and a powerful healing force. Ample research has demonstrated that tactile stimulation is extremely important for development and maintenance of physiological and psychological regulation in infants, children and adults, and touch has been an essential part of ancient healing practices. The medicinal aspect of touch has been known and used since earliest recorded medical history, 25 centuries ago. Research shows that baby monkeys deprived of cuddling by their mothers fail to thrive and often have developmental and mental problems, even if they’re provided with the food, water, and shelter necessary for survival. Being hugged regularly, on the other hand, boosts self-esteem, as evidenced by a study from the University of North Carolina. There, researchers found that couples who hugged each other for prolonged periods had higher levels of hormones that ease depression, reduce cravings, and increase immunity.Touch triggers a cascade of healing chemical responses including a decrease in stress hormones and an increase in seratonin and dopamine levels. Additionally, touch has been shown to increase the immune system's cytotoxic capacity, thereby helping our body maintain its defences and decreasing anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, inattention, stress hormones and cortisol levels. Science tells us that the need for physical contact is present at birth and is a very important part – perhaps the most important part – of our species heritage.

British clinician John Bowlby proposed the evolutionary concept of attachment, or the innate need for human beings to form strong affectional bonds to others. According to Bowlby, human infants enter the world predisposed to emotionally “bind” themselves to a mum, dad, or other caregiver (in other words, to form relationships), and this predisposition manifests itself in instinctive behaviours which promote physical proximity (and, consequently, enhance survival). This is why all babies cry, suckle, and cling – these attachment behaviours pull supportive responses from and promote physical closeness to caregivers, which helps babies survive.

Non-sexual nurturing touch is a basic human need, distinct from sexual touch. In our culture, it is too easy to think of touch as only sexual. We have forgotten that emotionally nurturing, warm, non-sexual touch is also a human need. A hand on the shoulder can symbolise friendship or support. A hug offers comfort when we are sad or friendship when we greet or take leave of a friend. Holding a hand says, “I’m here with you.”Isn’t it natural to need a cuddle from time to time? Doesn’t being touched, being hugged, make us feel good? I don’t think it’s terribly surprising, in a world in which we are all increasingly electronically connected and at the same time increasingly physically disconnected, that cuddling as a profession, and as a recognised therapy, would develop.

As I write this, I find myself thinking about the people and animals in my life who touch me, emotionally, spiritually and physically. I’m surrounded by friends and family who express their affection physically, who greet me with a hug, who take my hand when I’m afraid, who hold me when I’m sad, who sit next to me in the pub, at the dinner table and on the couch. My rescue greyhound leans into me as I sit at my laptop. I’m fortunate – my days are filled with touch, with contact, with opportunities to give and receive physical affection. But that could change. One day I could find myself old and alone, bereft of the contact I enjoy today.So I say bring on the professional cuddle therapists, and make cuddles available on the NHS. Maybe a “real” hug, one from someone who knows us and cares about us, is best. But any hug is better than no hug, even if we have to pay for it.

Kitty Mansfield, Founder of Cuddle Professionals UK and BeSnuggled

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