A few years ago there was a bit of internet fascination with the profession of “professional cuddlers”. These are people who are paid to provide physical touch and affection as a form of therapeutic treatment for loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. I watched many videos and read articles intrigued by the concept of physical touch as a curative measure for emotional ailment. Entering the field of counseling it has become more and more apparent that physical touch and emotional connection may be an essential facet of healing for some people. Does that mean we all need to hire professional cuddlers or hug our therapists? I don’t think so.
The concept of physical touch as a meaningful part of connection stems in large part from the book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate by Gary Chapman. The book outlines the five primary love languages people use to give and receive love and affection including: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and of course physical touch. We all vary in the importance of each of these languages in our relationships. Those who hold physical touch as their most prominent love language may find holding hands, hugging, a kiss on the forehead, or other physical forms of affection as the most salient evidence that they are cared about. Most of us find physical touch important in some way regardless of whether it is our top love language.
When we are physically affectionate with another person our body release oxytocin – the cuddle hormone. This hormone allows us to feel relaxed and connected with others. This is the reason that cuddling with a newborn baby or a pet can make us feel so good. There is significant research that oxytocin improves both mental and physical health. One study found that oxytocin helps us fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer, another found that oxytocin can arrest the impact of cortisol – our stress hormone – meaning that in a state of fight or flight increased oxytocin can help us to regulate more quickly. The benefits of regular production of oxytocin are extensive. Still though, if someone lives alone how can they increase their availability of oxytocin?
Weighted Blankets/ Stuffed Animals
Items that are specifically weighted for comfort reduce anxiety and may increase the brain’s output of oxytocin. Laying under a weighted blanket or weighted stuffed animal can simulate the feeling of hugging or cuddling which increases oxytocin production.
I have two cats and when one is laying on me purring it is almost as if I can feel my whole body relax. Research suggests that this experience of petting an animal stimulates the brain to release oxytocin, helping us to feel safe and relaxed. Don’t have a pet? Many animal shelters are always looking for volunteers!
Studies in 2012 and 2015 found that both giving and receiving a massage of at least 15 minutes increases oxytocin levels. Therapeutic massage also can relieve chronic pain and stress and help people maintain lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of happy hormones.
Yoga and Meditation
Yoga, meditation, and counseling all work together wonderfully. Studies of people after yoga and after meditation showed that both activities increased the level of a person’s oxytocin as compared to levels prior to the activities. I regularly recommend starting both practices, there are many free resources and videos online that can help to get started.
Cuddle therapy has been researched across a variety of age ranges and evidence suggests that most people benefit from some form of intervention that increases their oxytocin. In my work with Older Adults, I found that cuddle therapy in the form of caring for something, a pet, a plant, or a baby doll, vastly improved quality of life. We all need to feel loved and loving and engaging in these activities can help us to do that. Of course, if all else fails, there are plenty of professional cuddlers happy to help!