Hug it out: paying to cuddle with your therapist could be cathartic

Are South Africans as eager to embrace the concept of cuddle therapy? asks Lisa Witepski

10 November 2019 - 00:00 By Lisa Witepski
'We need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs for maintenance, and 12 hugs a day for growth' - late US therapist Virginia Satir.
'We need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs for maintenance, and 12 hugs a day for growth' - late US therapist Virginia Satir.
Image: 123RF/Ernest Akayeu

Across the globe, cuddle therapy is gaining favour as people search for deeper connections in a world of digital pokes and likes. But are South Africans as eager to embrace the concept?

Some people love a hug. They fold you in their arms without compunction and mash you against their chests, little worrying about whether they may be inadvertently smearing you with armpit sweat in the process. That is not me. When I hug, I like to keep people at the same distance as grade sixes at their first disco, which means a beach ball-sized space between us at all times.

When I'm sad, my need for space becomes even more pronounced, and hugging is definitely not an option at such times. In fact, my overriding memory of my eldest daughter's first day of play group — a momentous occasion in any parent's life — is of being unable to escape the teacher's smothering embrace when she thought my tearing up eyes were a signal of a need for very close personal contact. They weren't — I really, really wanted to be alone right then.

But I'm in the minority, as evidenced by the growing number of people signing up for cuddle therapy around the world.

TEARS START FLOWING

So what, exactly, is it? Bridget Edwards, an Emotional Freedom Technique "tapping" practitioner who turned her attention to cuddle therapy after watching a video doing the rounds in 2017, explains what a session entails:

"The first session is the most important, because that sets the therapy parameters, including a discussion around boundaries and protocols to ensure comfort, safety and security for both client and practitioner. I also discuss the proverbial elephant in the room of possible sexual arousals, and how to manage that successfully, as well as possible emotions that may occur.

We'll start with light touching of hands, arms, shoulders and slowly progress at their pace to cuddle positions either on a couch or bed (depending on the setting)
Bridget Edwards, Emotional Freedom Technique "tapping" practitioner on what happens during a cuddle therapy session

"Some people do become quite emotional, and tears start flowing, others fall asleep, while others are chatty, giggle and laugh a lot. Everyone is different, and no two sessions are the same.

"After the initial discussions, and once the client feels comfortable and ready to begin, we'll start with light touching of hands, arms, shoulders and slowly progress at their pace to cuddle positions either on a couch or bed (depending on the setting).

"Depending on how they feel, we may change cuddle positions every 15-20 minutes or so, perhaps adopting three or four positions within an hour. I prefer to go with the flow during sessions, instead of being rigid. After all, I like clients to feel at ease and comfortable so their overall experience is enjoyable, relaxing, rejuvenating and refreshing to their mind and body."

Edwards says her 12 years' experience as a therapist is an added advantage, because as much as some clients want to remain silent, others experience the cuddle as a safe space to discuss emotional challenges.

STATISTICS FOR MINIMUM HUGGAGE

Edwards emphasises that it's not all, or at least only, "touchy feely".

"Following the American protocols, and for my safety and security reasons, I will ensure that they are very clear in understanding that this is a non-sexual therapy. I also require their full names, copy of an ID, place of work, and conduct a background check as well. If for whatever reason, I don't feel comfortable, I won't take them on as a client."

On the subject of feeling comfortable, she admits that many clients take a while to warm up, and many feel awkward and nervous because they don't know what to expect. That's why the initial discussion around boundaries, goals and expectations is so important.

Once they relax, though, the benefits are self-evident.

"Human beings are gregarious by nature, and have innate need to belong to a tribe - both physically and emotionally," Edwards says.

She cites the late US therapist Virginia Satir, who said that "we need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs for maintenance, and 12 hugs a day for growth".

PUT ON YOUR PJS AND LET'S PARTY

It was such insights that sparked the Cuddle Party movement in New York in 2004 after a group of massage therapists gathered to share massage — giving and receiving — in an informal manner, says Barry du Plooy, a Cuddle Party facilitator.

Those who chose not to attend because they were concerned about the possibility of nudity — and all that would entail — approached organisers to create a space where they could still enjoy the benefits of touch (including the release of bonding hormone oxytocin) in a safe environment — fully clothed. "The response was, 'Put on your PJs, and let's have a cuddle party'," Du Plooy says.

The movement has since spread from the US to Canada, the UK, Ireland, Europe and SA, where Du Plooy is one of two trained Cuddle Party facilitators out of a global total of 166.

A Cuddle Party is a playful social event designed for adults to explore communication, boundaries and affection
Barry du Plooy, Cuddle Party facilitator

"A Cuddle Party is a playful social event designed for adults to explore communication, boundaries and affection. You can come to a Cuddle Party to meet new people, to enjoy amazing conversations, to touch, be touched, have fun, practise saying what you want and practise saying no — all in a safe, drug- and alcohol-free space where the accent is on non-sexual touch," he says, adding that the popularity of these events often leads to the establishment of one-on-one cuddle get-togethers.

The largest Cuddle Party he has hosted was at AfrikaBurn in 2014, where 50 people got snuggling — but, Du Plooy says, the average is a more conservative 20.

However, Du Plooy notes that after an initially flurry of activity after he received his certification, neither he nor the other South African facilitator have been particularly active.

Edwards confirms this: "I don't think it's been embraced to the extent it could, or should be."

She believes that South Africans stand to benefit enormously from controlled group sessions, given our high statistics in terms of mental health issues, depression, stress and trauma, as well as addiction.

Edwards says the sensitive nature of her work means it's not appropriate to recommend past clients to give comment about their experience, and my own efforts to extract a testimonial from someone who had attended cuddle therapy came to naught.

Edwards reports that most clients fit into an age range of 20 to 65, and 70% are female. Du Plooy says that he has run parties for mixed groups as well as women-only groups, and although participants must be over 18 according to Cuddle Party rules, they may be as old as 88.

Only time will tell whether cuddling becomes a mainstream therapy option or fizzles out more quickly than a limp handshake, but Edwards is certain that it "could be a real game changer".

Anyone for a cuddle, then?


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