Toronto couple explores the importance of touch through cuddle therapy

Cuddle therapy is on the rise and the pandemic has only exacerbated the need for safe touch-based services

Founders of The Cuddle Couple, Emma Janssen and Pablo Perez, embrace outside their residence.
Pablo Perez and Emma Janssen embracing outside their residence while wrapped in a light blanket, on May 30, 2021. This is the environment The Cuddle Couple currently operates out of to explore the roots of disconnection, and importance of touch and connection. COURTESY EMMA JANSSEN AND PABLO PEREZ

When you think about what a safe space to explore challenges surrounding intimacy, communication, and connection might look like, how likely are you to consider a complete stranger’s bedroom your safe haven? If you now find yourself cocking your head to the side in confusion, you wouldn’t be the first.

Touch — whether platonic or romantic — plays a fundamental role in the human experience; it helps us feel connected, supported, and seen. It could be as simple as a handshake from your boss, a hug from a friend, or a snuggle with your partner. These forms of positive touch promote trust, and help us feel happier and healthier in the process. Not having access to this basic human need can be more damaging than one may expect, affecting you mentally, emotionally, and physically. 

Toronto-based couple Emma Janssen, 33, and Pablo Perez, 32, hope to help individuals safely process complex feelings around touch with their alternative and holistic health service — cuddle therapy. The Cuddle Couple put their idea into action in April of 2020, and provide a variety of touch-based services including general in-person cuddle therapy, skin-to-skin therapy, and even group cuddle ‘parties.’ These services all vary to an extent, but the basis of each remains the same — consensual and non-sexual touch is utilized as a mechanism to promote healing, explore vulnerabilities and challenges surrounding touch or connection, and to help individuals better understand how to build a healthy connection with themselves and the world around them.

Two individuals reaching out to one another. COURTESY EMMA JANNSEN AND PABLO PEREZ.

“We go through different kinds of cuddling positions depending on what the person needs; sometimes they may need more Pablo, sometimes they may need more me,” Janssen said. “Sometimes they need both of us together, like sandwiched, you know?”

Before beginning, cuddle recipients have a free 20-minute consultation to see if it’s a good fit. They must read through the code of conduct and sign a contract agreeing to the rules and regulations set in place, and are encouraged to arrive in comfortable clothing. Cost and length of session vary based on what is being offered.

A typical session can unfold in many ways. Allowing the client to choose between their own home, the cuddler’s home, or a public outdoor space (such as a public park), provides a sense of autonomy for the cuddle recipient, creating an extra layer of comfort and safety. There are also continuous discussions occurring around acceptable boundaries before and during the session. Some individuals may want their hair stroked, while some may want an hour-long bear hug. Others may just need a hand to hold as they process old wounds. 

Janssen and Perez utilize a wide range of tools to ensure maximum comfort, tying in their knowledge and practice of meditation and breathwork, coaching, background in psychology, contact improvisation and dance, and therapy. They use that knowledge, along with their own life experiences around touch, intimacy, vulnerability, and healing, to provide a layered, person-specific experience.

“I think it’s so beautiful just getting to see people experience an aspect of mindfulness and meditation without necessarily meditating in the traditional sense,” Perez said. “It’s getting to see people learn and start to notice there’s a whole other way they can be approaching a problem.”

The Cuddle Couple has helped countless individuals get more in touch with their emotional, mental, and physical needs regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, education or ethnicity; people from all walks of life can benefit from this service. 

The Cuddle Couple displaying one of many possible cuddle positions that can provide comfort. COURTESY EMMA JANSSEN AND PABLO PEREZ.

Benjamin Einolf, a 24-year-old store driver from Elkton, Maryland is just one of many that rely on cuddle therapy, often driving up to two hours for this service and staying for a few hours at a time. Cuddle therapy is a major part of Einolf’s life. He’s attended over 40 sessions with various cuddlers and oftentimes goes bi-weekly. He considers this service an ideal way to implement touch into his life in a safe and trusted environment.

“I have a disability and I have to deal with a lot of different issues from people because of that; so usually when I come into a session, I’m very stressed,” Einolf said. “When I leave, for at least a week, I’ll have a smile on my face…I’m feeling a lot more, I’m breathing a lot slower, and I actually have unwinded my nerves.”

There are an endless number of people who seek out cuddle therapy. Some of these include those in abusive/neglectful relationships, individuals suffering with mental illnesses or disorders such as depression, anxiety or PTSD, those experiencing a general lack of touch and intimacy, widowers and divorcees that have lost their partner, someone that’s had a bad touch experience seeking to reintroduce touch into their lives in a safe environment, and many more. Loneliness itself is a simple enough reason to try this experience.

Jessica Mayo, 42, is a licensed mental health counsellor from Pensacola, Fla. She’s a strong proponent of the importance of touch. As someone that works with individuals of all ages, she’s seen firsthand the effect that no touch, negative touch, or positive touch can have for someone’s emotional, mental, and physical state. 

“Early research in attachment demonstrated that infants that were not touched beyond their basic needs would fail to thrive and grow — often they would die — demonstrating just how important touch is to a person,” Mayo said. “(Touch) releases oxytocin that can contribute to the release of other hormones such as serotonin and dopamine — the ‘feel good’ hormones — while also reducing stress hormones such as cortisol.”

Due to COVID-19 guidelines, Janssen and Perez have had to temporarily suspend the in-person portion of their business model. However, they provide a virtual sister component in the form of relational coaching sessions for individuals and couples. 

“There’s a very laid back, cozy environment that we create even online…we really kind of extracted the verbal side of what we bring to our sessions so that we can really explore the connection side,” Janssen said. “Which is what we’ve been able to bring more of during this COVID-19 period.” 

Janssen and Perez are excited to return to in-person cuddle therapy once it is safe to do so. They even have possible plans to organize group workshops and experiment with an open-door policy in which people can simply come by, explore the area, and have a safe space to rely on.

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Posted: Jun 16 2021 3:34 pm
Filed under: Spotlight On Small Biz Unique Business