NEWS

People Are Paying for Cuddles—Sometimes via Zoom

zoom cuddle therapy

Theresa Chiechi

This story is part of a series that explores growing health trends that were shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Will these trends stay or go away in the post-pandemic era?

Key Takeaways

  • Professional cuddling is a growing means of therapy that can offer physical, social, emotional, and educational benefits both in person and virtually.
  • Platonic touch can be therapeutic as long as there’s clear communication, parties are familiar and consenting, and boundaries are expressed and respected.
  • Cuddle therapy could be inaccessible because of costs and social stigma, but professional cuddlers are hoping it will become more integrated into society.

Along with COVID-19, there’s also an epidemic of loneliness. A report from Harvard University suggested that the viral pandemic has deepened the loneliness that was already affecting many in the United States. Right now, 36% of all Americans, 61% of whom are young adults, could be feeling “serious loneliness.”

Loneliness is, the researchers wrote, “a culprit in a whole slew of problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, heart disease, and domestic abuse—problems that all appear to be ticking up during the pandemic.”

Although loneliness isn’t new, it seems to have grown in scale. But a very human solution has been gaining traction: cuddle therapy offered by professional cuddlers who are trained in platonic touch. During the pandemic, some cuddlers have made their services more accessible by offering virtual sessions.

Yosef, whose last name is omitted for privacy, has sought cuddle therapy at Cuddle Up To Me in Portland, Oregon. When he feels down, he usually goes through a mental checklist to see how he might be able to brighten his mood: “Have I eaten? Have I slept? Have I drunk water? Have I touched a human being in the last few days?”

If the answer is no to the last one, he tells himself, “OK, go find a hug.” Sometimes, cuddle therapy is his way of fulfilling that need.

Though Yosef struggled with feeling comfortable about physical touch in the past, he has warmed up to attending group cuddles after half a dozen sessions.

But can interpersonal touch be therapeutic for everybody? Anik Debrot, PhD, a psychotherapist and a professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, tells Verywell that current research says yes—with conditions.

“There’s a lot of evidence showing a link between touch and well-being,” she says, adding that physical touch can lower stress, blood pressure, and foster positive emotions, but it would usually have to come from someone familiar.

What Is Cuddle Therapy Exactly?

In addition to treating loneliness, compassionate touch and social proximity present various benefits to well-being. Therapies involving touch can also help people integrate healthy and respectful touch into their lives, especially if they have a history of trauma.

Debrot says that sometimes people don’t get the intimate touch they crave in relationships or the touch comes in the form of abuse. Cuddle therapy could sometimes help victims of domestic violence reintegrate touch into their lives in a healthy and respectful way, she adds.

Keeley, a certified cuddlist based in Chicago, has been practicing cuddle therapy for six years and has worked with hundreds of clients to help them meet their therapeutic and social needs.

In a TikTok, she shared how a typical cuddle session would look like. Before any cuddling or touching, both she and her client would talk about how they’re feeling and what their boundaries are. Then they can choose a comfortable place to cuddle, whether it’s on a sofa, in bed watching a movie or lying down while listening to music. They can talk or stay in silence as long as it matches the client’s need.

Keeley’s home base for cuddle therapy, Cuddlist, was founded in 2015 to centralize the practice in many states. Rather than having cuddle therapists work alone, Cuddlist aimed to offer institutional support with a vetting procedure and reliable training to make cuddle therapy safe and comfortable for both clients and practitioners.

Along with physical comfort, Keeley tells Verywell, cuddling can offer social and emotional support. "Empathetic listening and unconditional positive regard” can be “exceedingly therapeutic” for some people, she says.

Every cuddle session is different, but the conversations can sometimes turn into one similar to a sit-down therapy session.

For Yosef, cuddle therapy serves as a bridge between talk therapy and regular touch with family and friends. He sees it as a professional relationship where cuddlers maintain their boundaries, but still provide connection in a physical way.

Cuddling with friends or family, on the other hand, might lead to anxiety about whether he’s putting too much pressure on them or not meeting their needs, he adds.

“Having comforting touch while I process these emotions is really helpful,” Yosef says. “I feel like cuddle therapy filled a gap in my healing that conventional therapy or cuddly friends couldn’t.”

How Does Cuddle Therapy Use Touch as a Treatment?

Research shows that oxytocin, a “love hormone” linked to warm feelings of closeness to others, is only released via physical touch when it’s perceived as welcomed or positive. Oxytocin can also help people withstand stress, increase emotional empathy, and enhance communication among individuals.

Is interpersonal touch beneficial when it comes from a stranger? How do professional cuddlers stay safe and respect the boundaries of their clients?

Keeley says cuddle therapists always take the time to get to know their clients. Before meeting in person, she’d set up a 30-minute consultation session via Zoom to assess compatibility. At the beginning of the first in-person session, they chat and reaffirm boundaries and needs, which could facilitate positive feelings during the cuddle session.

But cuddle therapy “isn’t just about the physical contact,” she says, adding that cuddlers also work with clients on establishing boundaries, talking about consent, and helping them figure out “how to connect with their bodies” in a healthy way.

Keeley’s company also has safety recommendations and resources in place for worst-case scenarios. For example, cuddlers can have a call buddy, vet clients through a screening process, and collect IDs. Cuddlers are also trained to notice red flags during the consultation sessions.

“The number one thing that practitioners can do to keep themselves safe is to practice and get really, really good at clear, direct communication, and set firm but compassionate boundaries,” she says.

What This Means For You

Websites like Cuddlist and Cuddle Sanctuary offer tools to find trained cuddlers near you. Prices range from $60–$300 per hour, while virtual sessions are usually cheaper. Before the very first session, every new client receives a free 30 minute consultation via Zoom to get to know the cuddler, answer questions, and schedule the session. Location depends on the cuddler; some cuddlers have sessions in their homes, others travel to their clients, or both.

How Did Cuddlers Move Online During the Pandemic?

During the pandemic, it wasn’t easy to translate cuddle therapy to an online setting. “It takes creativity and ingenuity,” Keeley says. “But we can trick our bodies into producing oxytocin even through a virtual setting.”

Conducting sessions via Zoom, Keeley pivoted to using exercises like “waking up the hands game,” in which she and her client explore the sensation of touch by each holding a random household object. “This can awaken a lot of really cool things in our perception and our connection with our bodies,” she says.

Another virtual technique is “mirror touch,” where the client follows the cuddle therapist's lead to touch themselves gently, like cupping the face. “When a client sees this happening, and they also feel the action, their brain will make those connections and produce oxytocin,” Keeley explains.

Keeley adds that she was frustrated by the virtual sessions at first, but she was able to use new techniques and still share beautiful moments with clients. It also allowed her to extend her sessions to people living elsewhere at a lower price (reduced from $200 to $100 per visit). Although she started offering in-person sessions again, she has kept her virtual appointments for remote clients.

Will Cuddle Therapy Go Mainstream?

In the future, Keeley says she hopes to see cuddle therapy more widely integrated into society by having dedicated studios in wellness centers or corporate settings.

Although people might be wary of cuddle therapy, Keeley adds, it’s not much different from other forms of health care. “Massage therapists also touch people, and they have in-home practices frequently,” she says.

Cuddle therapy may also be stigmatized because people can sometimes conflate it with sex work, Keeley adds. The stigma around sex work itself may also discourage people from seeking out cuddlers or breed unsafe practices and environments, even if therapeutic cuddling is not meant to be romantic or sexual.

“Having access to a place that has standard equality, practice, procedures, and accountability is unique and valuable,” she says.

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5 Sources
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