How Touch Improves Your Health

Touch can be healthy in a lot of ways. We know that babies that don’t get touch can die, and children in low touch environment can develop cognitive and physical deficits that follow them the rest of their lives.

But how and why does touch make such a difference?

A lot of it has to do with the body’s relaxation response.

Did you know your body had a relaxation response? We don’t talk about it much.

We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” response, the state in which the body release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Have you ever heard stories about people lifting cars off their loved ones in  crisis? That’s stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol at work, and we get pretty excited about the impact those substances can have on us. Strength, endurance, lowered sensitivity to pain – all of those things are valuable in our broader society. And as long as we’re using those stress hormones to fuel these sorts of efforts, they aren’t bad for us.

Problem is, a lot of the things that stress us out today aren’t and can’t be resolved through physical labor. We aren’t generally running away from predators in a jungle, or trying to clean up after a mudslide, or other tasks that take a lot of physical energy and strength. We’re sitting at a computer, or talking to a customer, or reading the news on our phones, which doesn’t give those stress hormones a function in the body.

Now stress hormones are a bit like teenagers; full of energy and strength, but if you make them sit around with nothing to do they might cause some trouble. In the case of these substances, the trouble they cause is called inflammation. If you have a lot of inflammation, it can become chronic. Chronic inflammation is linked to heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, and a host of other issues.

Touch helps to trigger the relaxation response, which is created by the parasympathetic nervous system and also called the “rest and digest” response. That one doesn’t get the sort of air time that the fight or flight response gets, but it’s important of for your overall health. If you don’t figure out how to help the body relax, it’s going to cause problems.

There are lots of ways to help the body relax, touch and cuddling isn’t the only option, but it might be an option that you haven’t tried yet. The Holding Space office is set up to facilitate relaxation. We have designed everything from the lighting to the furniture to the fishtank to the music to help people relax. Even having an office at all is unusual in the world of professional cuddling, but we wanted to take that step to help our clients have a space away from stress triggers (like your chores or work) while still being comfortable and welcoming.

Touch also increases the immune response in other ways, increasing the number of white blood cells in the body and the presence of natural killer (NK) cells. These NK cells are the ones that go after germs and viruses in your system to keep them from making you sick.

Between these responses, the body clearly responds positively to safe and nurturing touch. If you don’t have a good source of it in your life now, you can get those needs met in an ethical way at Holding Space. Whether that means a one on one appointment, or a visit to one of our group snuggle sessions, I hope you’ll support your own health by giving it a try.

Is Holding Space Innovative?

Applications are open for the 2018 Indiana Innovation Awards, the only broad-based awards focused on Indiana.

Hmmmmmmmmm.

Is presenting platonic touch openly as a service innovative?

Is talking about the effect platonic touch has on the nervous system, where it can not only calm anxiety and soothe depression but also improve cardiac health by reducing systemic inflation novel?

Is having an established commercial location for doing this work, rather than going into people’s homes, an innovation?

Is using touch as a workshop took to help people connect with themselves, and learn the skills required to navigate consent successfully innovative?

Is providing a technique for helping clients radically relax, or helping them re-wire their brain’s approach to touch new?

All of those are open questions. In addition, the nomination form asks for economic impact. Holding Space hasn’t created any jobs yet, even the founder is just working part time at it. And the annual revenue numbers aren’t impressive.

I didn’t invent any of these things. I’m not even the first person to bring them to the state. But I am the first person to run touch-based consent education at GenCon. Is that enough to count?

 

I’m going to submit an application anyway.

I suspect they’ll laugh at me. But they’ll know I exist. Maybe they’ll fight me. But that’s a step in the process too.

Summer of Snuggles

Part of the reason I started Holding Space was to help normalize platonic touch in our culture. This summer, I’m doing this by handing out hugs at various public venues. Find me at the Fishers Summer Concerts on Tuesday evenings or Wednesday lunchtimes, or at the Carmel Summer Family Concert Series at the Gazebo on Wednesday nights. I’ll also be showing up at some other local festivals (like the Strawberry Festival on the circle yesterday, or Monumental Yoga next week).

Two public hug sessions in, I’m not over my nervousness about handing out public hugs, but I am more convinced than ever that it’s an important part of what I’m trying to accomplish with Holding Space. Professional cuddling doesn’t work in a culture that doesn’t have a comfortable relationship with platonic touch – and our culture is a little shaky on that ideal.

Friends have warned me to “stay safe” when I go out to give hugs, and that’s not entirely unreasonable. It’s not entirely reasonable, either, though. The venues I’ve chosen are in very safe parts of town (each of the concert venues I’m going to is no farther than across the parking lot from the local police station, and the festivals on Monument Circle also have a pretty strong police presence.)

Some of the people that encounter me are gonna laugh at me. That’s already happened. I’m not gonna say that’s my favorite part, but it doesn’t make me feel unsafe. Someone yesterday asked me if I offered more than hugs, which was creepy and unpleasant, but mostly made me sad for the guy who asked. I believe I’ll have the same reaction if someone gooses me –  It hasn’t happened yet, but if it does it’ll be creepy and gross and will also give me an opportunity to ask what makes him think that’s a reasonable part of hugging a stranger. I promise to report back how I actually react when it happens – but I know it’ll be a growth opportunity for me and not something that damages me.

I’m actively looking for other opportunities to encounter people in public and offer them hugs. If you have ideas, comment here. Thanks for following along on my interesting journey!

Public Hugs

IMG_20180613_193324.jpgI did it! I gave out some free hugs at the Carmel concert series concert tonight. (Well, technically to the crowd before the actual event started. I left when they started playing – I didn’t want to disrupt the concert itself.)

I was unreasonably nervous about it. When I got there, I stood awkwardly with the sign for a little while, then wandered around the audience. I gave hugs to anybody who wanted one, and thanked anybody who told me they didn’t want one for being clear about their boundaries. One person I hugged told me their daughter just lost a friend to suicide yesterday – so at least that person really needed the hug I gave them.

I handed out a few brochures, too, but only to people who asked me questions about why I was giving out free hugs. I figure hugs don’t need a reason (even if I do happen to have one.)

In fact, the longer I keep this business open, the more I realize that normalizing platonic touch is an important part of why I started this business and an important part of what I want to accomplish in the world. Touch is a normal and natural human need, but we’ve told people (especially men) that they’re only allowed to touch romantic partners (or, more darkly, people they’re exhibiting power over.) Touch reduces pain, improves cardiovascular function, and improves mood – and none of those benefits require you to have an ongoing relationship with the person you hug. I got to do that a couple dozen times in less than an hour tonight, and that was a useful way to spend some time. 

There are concerts every week this summer. I plan to show up to most of them with my sign and a smile. I’m looking for other good venues, too, so let me know if you have some I should consider. 

Getting More Touch

Last week, I wrote about the physical and psychological benefits of touch. This week, I want to talk about how you can get more touch into your life.

There are lots of options. One is to work with a professional.  Massage is one common way to get more touch in your life. In fact, many of the studies I talked about used massage as the methodology of touch. And massage is great – but also, not everybody loves it. Professional cuddling provides the benefits of touch with a slightly different purpose. When I work with clients to provide therapeutic touch, I don’t come into the session with an agenda about what parts of them I plan to touch. A cuddle is a collaboration – I create an experience with my clients that serves their needs.

A lot of professionals besides massage therapists and professional cuddlers provide touch at some level to their clients. Hairdressers, estheticians, nail technicians, health care workers, various forms of alternative medicine like acupuncture. As Doctor Field says, “It seems that as our culture places more restrictions on touch within human relationships, alternative forms of touch become more popular. It is as if we needed a minimum of touch for our emotional well-being and physical wellness, so we find acceptable ways and sometimes functional ways (e.g. going to the hairdresser) of being touched.

But you don’t necessarily need to go to a professional to get more touch in your life. You can increase the amount of touch you share with your peers, and there are even some practices you can do by yourself that work pretty much the same way as touch in your body.

Self Touch

Let’s talk next about some of the things you can do that help you get the benefits of touch without actually having to interact with another human. Being aware of these techniques can help make it more comfortable to approach others for touch because they help reinforce the idea that we can get our needs met even if someone else tells us no.

Solo snuggling is an effective way to create a sense of comfort and nurturing. I use the word snuggling because you can snuggle up with a blanket or a pillow or a sweater, and not need another human to be part of the equation.

One of the keys to effective touch seems to be moderate pressure. Light pressure, more of a tickling touch, simply doesn’t seem to have the same benefits. A focus on the heart area is generally helpful. Pressing the flat of your hand into your collarbone region for 20 seconds or so will create a burst of oxytocin. Oxytocin is useful stuff – we have heard about it as the cuddle hormone or the love hormone or the bonding hormone. It’s the stuff that creates the strong bond between a newborn and its mother, especially during breast feeding. Interestingly, it seems to only work for that purpose when you already feel safe with the person who’s touching you.

Any sort of compression tends to help relax you. Weighted blankets are becoming more popular, because they can provide this compression. In the yoga classes I teach, we sometimes place a sandbag on our bellies while we breathe to create that sense of compression. Any object that weighs enough to make you aware of its presence will work for this purpose.

Another way to create sensation in the body is through some gentle stretching. If you stretch your arms toward the ceiling and then bend to the side, creating a curve with the body, you’re effectively snuggling one side of your body while stretching the other side. Literally giving yourself a hug stretches behind your shoulder blades, where tension is often stored. Be sure to do both sides…you want to evenly stretch your shoulders. Any sort of twist provides a hug for your insides. Again, be sure to do both sides, so that you get all the stretch even on both sides.

Another practice that provides the benefits of touch is from the traditional Indian system of medicine called Ayurveda – it’s skin brushing. You take a dry brush, and work it over your skin. The purists say you must always brush toward your heart, because that’s the direction that will help the most in purging the lymphatic system.

One last option is tapping. There’s a whole science around this, as well – but the basics are pretty simple. Moderate stimulation of the arms and collarbone and face area. It has the ability to reduce stress and anxiety. Remember that cortisol is released in the body to give it the energy to do something? So tapping gives you something to do with that a energy to keep it from turning into anxiety. It isn’t as strenuous as fighting or ripping all the carpets out of your flooded house -but it’s a lot more active than sitting still.

Social Touch

Now, I’d like to talk a little about how you can get more touch into your lives with your friends and neighbors. One of the biggest barriers to that is that people sometimes wonder what you “really” want from the touch you’re asking for.

Honestly, one of the most common questions I address about my own work with therapeutic touch is whether it’s “really” a thinly veiled form of sex work. It’s not, by the way – and one of the key benefits of that distinction is that I help people distinguish between touch and sex.

I understand that we live in a world that suspects that any touch might be sexual – but we know that suspicion to be wrong. In your experience of life, is it not true that sometimes when you need a hug the most, sex is the furthest thing from your mind. In situations where tragedy or stress is present, touch can provide comfort, and sex isn’t really what we’re after. Think about funerals and sitting with friends who’ve received catastrophic information and are trying to process it. Sometimes there literally are no words, and in those times, we often turn to touch to try and bridge that space between ourselves and those we love.

The first piece of advice I have for you in getting more human touch into your life is to be very clear about what you’re looking for. One of the biggest fears people have when engaging in physical touch is that it might “turn into” something different.

The second piece of advice I have for you in getting more human touch into your life is to overcommunicate. At the group snuggle events I hold at my office, we use a specific phrase to respond to people who tell us no – and that phrase is “thank you for taking care of yourself.” It can sound a little snarky to people – but the intent is really to be completely sincere. I don’t want to hug anybody who doesn’t want to hug me. (Have you ever been hugged when you don’t want to be? It’s miserable! Who wants to impose that on another person?) I sincerely want to know if the people I offer a hug or an arm around a shoulder or a full on cuddle to are actually interested in taking me up on that offer – and if they’re not, I am grateful that they let me know.

Now, I’m in a position to be sincerely grateful for that. I know that my touch needs are gonna get met. My personal situation, my social circle, and my business all work together to make sure that happens. Other people might not have the same privilege – and real problems tend to start when someone assumes they are owed touch. That’s why we started with ways to take the edge off your own touch needs – because that’s completely under your control.

Once you have clear in your own mind what you’re looking for, and you have come to peace with the idea that the person you ask might say no – and that their no, if it arrives, will be a gift to you – then you are in a position to ask for touch.

 

How Touch Makes Your Life Better

Touch is the first sense to develop, not only in humans, but in all animal species. And since you developed your sense of touch, you have never been without it. You can close your eyes and pretend you have no sense of sight. You can catch a cold and experience not having a sense of smell. You can plug your ears and experience not having a sense of hearing. You aren’t always using your sense of taste. But you are always touching something.

Maybe this is why touch has the longest definition of any word in the Oxford English Dictionary. When we talk about our senses, we don’t talk about our seeings or our hearings or our smellings – we talk about our feelings – and maybe that speaks to the fundamental nature of touch.

Touch and Human Development

David Linen, who wrote a book called Touch, says “Touch is not optional for human development.” Babies who don’t get nurturing touch flat up die, in the most extreme circumstances. And if they don’t die, they have some lasting effects. A doctor named Saul Schanberg put babies who had been touch deprived into an MRI – where he saw evidence of stunted growth in their shinbones. That evidence will be there the rest of their lives.

Children who lack nurturing touch also have lower IQs – sometimes dramatically lower. But there’s good news in this research as well. If those children are adopted into a nurturing environment within a couple of years, they will completely recover the IQ they lost due to the lack of touch.

These same effects show up in adults.  Touch has physical and cognitive benefits. Let’s talk about some of those.

Stress / Cortisol Reduction

Touch reduces stress chemicals in the body. The stress chemical most often studied in this research is cortisol – and cortisol is pretty nasty stuff. It’s associated with heart disease, cancer, gastrointestinal problems eczema, asthma, and depression. It seems a little weird that our body would create such a toxic substance, doesn’t it?

In Bessel VanDerKolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score, he explains that stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are generated in the body to prepare it for action. Fight or flight – these are both physical actions. Expending the energy required to recover from a crisis is a physical action. All of those people in Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico who have spent the last month cleaning up after that series of hurricanes – they’re all doing a bunch of physical work to return their lives and their communities to a livable state. The stress they’re under is going to good use.

But the stress of modern life is often delivered to us on our devices or through a television screen, that may involve people we will never meet and circumstances we’ll never take physical action to resolve. In these cases, the cortisol that our bodies helpfully secrete to get us ready for action doesn’t have anything helpful to do. So, like a bored teenager, it wreaks havoc.

We can dissipate that cortisol, and the other stress hormones that go with it, with touch. This doesn’t appear to be particularly related to the physical exertion of touch – these studies were largely done on people lying around getting a massage, so they weren’t expending exercise-levels of exertion. But the touch they were receiving had an immediate effect of reducing the cortisol level in their body.

Immune Function

Touch also improves the function of our immune system. It increases the number of Natural Killer cells, or NK cells, in the body. These cells are the front line of the immune system, and more of them show up when we are touched. Immunoglobin A, an antibody that plays a critical role in the immune function of mucous membranes, is also increased in response to touch.

Cognitive Function

Those are some of the things touch does for our body…but it also plays a role in our cognitive function. Scientists think that humans evolved social relationships, at least in part, to distribute the problem solving across multiple brains. Touching another human tells our brains that they have help, and that seems to take some of the load off and free it up for other cognitive functions.

In a study, they had people hold hands with strangers, or with someone they know and trust. It turns out that, as Dr. James Coan from the University of Virgina says, “Holding the hand of really anyone, it makes your brain work a little less hard in coping.” Some scientists believe that we developed social relationships so that we could distribute the work of problem solving among various brains…and these findings support that conclusion. If your brain gets a visceral signal that there’s another brain in the area, it relaxes enough to perform a little better.

In that study that compared touch with relaxation, we found that relaxation puts you in a sleepy state, whereas touch can relax people into an alert state. In that state, people who had been touched were able to complete math problems twice as quickly as they did before the intervention – and with half the number of errors. So, for this study, they took people and had them do some math problems (adding the sum total of 7 randomly generated numbers). Then they had the intervention, either touch or relaxation without touch. Then they got another group of 7 numbers to add up.

Why Humans

Touch from a human is different than the touch you are experiencing right now as your feet touch the floor or your legs touch the chair. Our brains are very good at distinguishing a touch with emotion from a similar but non-emotional touch. A recent study by Matt Hertenstein, right up the road at DePauw University in Greenfield, shows that we can identify people’s emotions when they touch us, even when we can’t see their face or other body language.

Even when we don’t remember being touched, touch from another human influences our behavior. Studies show that students whose teachers touch their shoulders perform better, and diners whose waiter touches their hand when they deliver the check tip more. In one study, a researcher approached someone in a phone booth and asked if they’d found change in the phone when they arrived. Subjects who received a touch on the arm from the researcher are significantly more likely to return the quarter than those who did not – even when they did not remember being touched.

Getting More Touch

I’ll talk more in next week’s post about how to get more touch into your daily life – but it probably won’t surprise anybody that I suggest booking an appointment with a professional cuddler as one of the possible techniques. Professional cuddlers are an excellent way to find ethically sourced nurturing and emotional labor.

Consent and Courtesy

The salesperson who just called tells me I need to advertise more, which may be true. But I’m not looking to spend money on that today, and I’m pretty sure their platform isn’t the right choice for my business. I explained that politely to the sales person. What he heard, apparently, was a series of objections he wanted to overcome so he could make his commission.

I stated my boundary clearly and politely, and gave the guy a chance to respond to my “this is not the right time for me, but I wish you good luck with your next call. Have a nice afternoon” with a “thank you, please call us when the time is right.”

Instead he decided to do what they teach you in sales training – work to overcome the objections. I’ve read enough sales training to know that a lot if it says never to take no for an answer. It says there is never a reason to accept a no from a potential client, and that if you’re good enough you’ll be able to get a “yes” from everybody.

Apparently, this guy was familiar with those ideas, and he just kept talking after I clearly told him I wasn’t interested. After just a couple of tries to wrap up the conversation, both of which he ignored, I ended the call in the middle of one of his sentences.

I felt a little rude doing that, to be honest.

And yet.

That feeling, that defending my boundaries was a little rude? It’s dangerous. It’s how we end up doing too much, spending too much, sacrificing our sanity and safety in the name of being “nice.”

But what if instead of being nice, we decided to be kind (to ourselves as well as to other people). What if we worked from the assumption that we know what we want better than anybody else does? What if we extended that idea to everybody and assumed each person knows best what they want? What it we stopped feeling like our primary purpose in life was to make other people comfortable?

What if we looked for the ways our boundaries helped the people around us. Nothing this sales person said was going to change my mind about spending money to advertise – especially not with a company who claims they are part of Google (they’re not) and can make me the #1 search result in my area (that’s not how that works.) I don’t have to be mad at the person who called me, after all, they’re simply doing a job and trying to make a living. But I’m also not obligated to waste my time (and theirs)  because I’m not willing to just hang up the phone.

As a business owner, I read a lot of advice about how to market things- and a decent amount of that advice goes against my principles as a consent-based business. I don’t want to be pushy. I don’t want to sell my services to someone who’s really looking for a different type of service. I don’t want to trick anybody into trying what I have to offer because they might like it. That’s not the type of business I want to run. You’re not going to find an invasive pop-up on my website, because I believe that people who want to sign up for my newsletter can find the sign up themselves (it’s shown prominently on the first page, after all.) You’re not going to find me glossing over the “this is definitely platonic” part of my screening call – I want people to be clear about what I offer before they fork over their money.

What you are going to see is me showing up places and sharing what I do. Sharing the benefits of platonic touch with people. Offering free hugs. Offering pay-what-feels-good-to-you community events. I am going to insist on marketing my business in a way that feels authentic and respects other people’s right to make informed choices about whether they want to do business with me or not.

It’s not your typical business model, and it might not work. But it does reflect the sort of world I want and believe we can create.

Are you looking for the same sort of world, but worry that you don’t have the skills to help create it? I specialize in helping people to develop those skills; identifying where their own boundaries are and communicating those boundaries to others. That work can happen in a coaching environment where we never touch, or in a cuddling environment where we can use touch as a workshop took to help develop these skills. Interested in learning more? Book a session today!

The Subversive Idea that Men can Control Their Behavior

I grew up with the message that men can’t be expected to control themselves if they become sexually aroused. You can still see this message now in the conversation around dress codes in school – the idea that a boy isn’t capable of learning if an exposed female shoulder is in the room with them.

I find this idea impossibly insulting to the men I know.

In my work as a professional cuddler, the boner question is the one I most frequently encounter, both from potential clients and from people who are merely curious. People ask me what would happen if arousal occurs during a session, or they ask me how I can feel safe alone with a man who might become aroused.

In cases like this, people are typically using “arousal” as a euphemism for “erection” – a common practice that is, frankly a little problematic. First of all, it assumes that arousal and erection are the same thing, and they aren’t. If they were, arousal would be limited to people with penises capable of becoming erect, and that’s simply not how the world works.

So let’s start by stripping out some euphemisms and talk instead directly about erections, and whether or not men who have erections are able to control themselves.

Spoiler alert – OF COURSE THEY CAN.

We’ve got this cultural myth that an erect penis changes the behavior of the man it’s attached to. Being a cultural myth, it shows up in our consciousness without anybody paying it a whole lot of close attention. It’s “common sense” that people who are distracted with sexual thoughts might not be able to focus on anything else, but only because we’ve seen so many stories and heard so many jokes that rely on this idea to make sense.

And it’s ridiculous.

Let’s talk for a minute about what the world would look like if it were true that an erection negated a man’s ability to function in the world. We wouldn’t be able to have billboards on the side of the road, or signs on the side of a vehicle, or mudflaps on the back of a truck with sexual imagery on them, because if “all the blood rushing from a man’s brain” reduces his ability to function, how can we trust him in that state behind the wheel of a car.

And what about sexy movies or strip clubs or restaurants where busty waitresses dress in skimpy outfits? How can we allow men to be out in public places designed to create arousal? How would they, for instance, remember to pay their bills if they aren’t functioning? How could they be expected to keep their hands to themselves in strip clubs if their brain has been taken over by their penis?

You might say that those businesses have bouncers because we don’t expect men to behave themselves, and point out that wait staff deal with some of the most pervasive harassment in the workforce, and all of that is true. And yet, most of the men who show up in those places keep their hands to themselves, do math to pay their bill, and generally function as a competent adult. And some sort of bouncer or greeter is present at lots of businesses that aren’t promoting sexual arousal in men.

The question, then, isn’t whether a man can interact respectfully with another human while aroused. There’s abundant evidence that it’s possible and even common. The question we’re actually faced with instead is whether we really expect men to interact respectfully with other humans (whether they’re aroused or not.)

This becomes a more challenging question. Part of the toxic in toxic masculinity is the idea that men must have dominion over all they survey to keep their “man card.” This shows up in a myriad of ways. Men are expected not to show emotion. That same “man card” is in danger if a man is known to consider the opinions or feelings of other humans, especially women. A man who asks his wife he can go to the bar is likely to be teased by his “buddies” for it, because considering how one’s actions affect other people isn’t very manly in this system. A man who interacts with someone they’re sexually attracted to but doesn’t have an orgasm can lose their man card for that, too – whether the other person is interested in sexual interaction or not.

Interacting respectfully is another thing that can cause one’s “man card” to be in danger. It’s pretty common for toxic masculinity to involve a pretty hefty side of treating people seen as lower status (read: anybody who’s not a white male) badly just to prove that you can.

Men who buy into these ideas are dangerous. They’re domestic abusers and men who kill women who won’t give up their phone numbers or say yes to a date. Some of them, like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, go on literal killing sprees and claim that it’s because they can’t get laid. Some men worship these killers in online forums where they also talk about creating terror in the streets unless they get their way.

And yet.

I have a professional practice where I snuggle up with men I don’t know, after a brief screening process. I’ve been doing this for more than a year, and I’m still alive and unharmed. The work I do with men is some of the most rewarding work in my practice, and they tell me repeatedly how grateful they are and how much difference I’m making in their lives. I have never once been afraid during a session that my safety was in danger.

I’m not going to assert that I couldn’t be in danger from the culture of toxic masculinity. It’s entirely possible that one of these days some trolls are going to show up and call me names, threaten my safety, or maybe just flat up attack me. But none of Elliot Rodger or Alex Minassian’s victims were professional cuddlers. The risk that exists is there because of our toxic culture, not because of the work that I do.

And with a little bit of luck and a lot of persistence, this idea of professional cuddling might just catch on and help to disrupt the toxic masculinity that pervades our system now. This toxicity is deadly not only to women, but to men as well. Loneliness and touch deprivation are a part of why men live shorter lives than women. So is suicide: men are significantly more likely to die by their own hand than women.

Is it a little grandiose to think that a little thing like cuddling strangers for money can help shift the tide? Sure.

And yet.

The idea that it’s safe to offer affection and support to men (even though some of them are very dangerous) is subversive. The idea that emotional labor and nurturing labor is valuable is subversive. The idea that consent is an important part of a business interaction is subversive. The idea that men want to give and receive affection, and not just sex, is subversive.

If we subvert enough of the toxic ideas that have been allowed to flourish in our society, perhaps we can create the consent culture and thriving masculinity that we want to be.

I have a piece of calligraphy in my office that says “Do small things with great love” It’s the philosophy behind this business. Simple and humble, and perhaps not enough to make a difference.

But maybe it is. And, more importantly, it definitely makes a difference in the individual lives of the clients who come to see us. Curious? Come check it out for yourself.

 

 

 

 

Cuddling and Creativity

Two people cuddling

Creativity is a sort of magic – or at least some of it is. If you study creativity, you find out that there are two types, Apollonian and Dionysian. If you know Greek mythology, you may remember that Apollo was the god of rational thinking and order, while Dionysus was the god of wine and dance, emotions and instincts. The phrase “write drunk, edit sober” sums up this divide pretty neatly.

Apollonian creativity is based on the need to keep grinding. Editing, polishing, carving, sanding…finalizing the work so that it contains precisely what you want it to contain. Milton Glasser described this sort of creativity by saying

“Creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.”

You can boost this sort of creativity by using stimulants. It’s no coincidence, then, that the industrial revolution showed up in our culture about the same time the breakfast beverage of choice changed from beer to tea or coffee.

As you might expect, cudding isn’t a great boost to this sort of creativity (though it could be a nice reward for sticking with things.) But that’s not to say it doesn’t help with creative output overall. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said; “Perhaps the most important duality that creative persons are able to integrate is being open and receptive on the one hand, and focused and hard-driving on the other.” If Apollonian creativity is the focused and hard-driving part, how then can we help people get to the open and receptive part?

The open and receptive brain state that correlates with Dionysian creativity is called a hyponagogic state. Your brain waves are at 8-12 Hz, they’re called Alpha Waves, and it feels a little like you’re floating. It’s that state you get into when you’re half asleep, or daydreaming…or cuddling!

This is the state where creative breakthroughs are made, from Archimedes figuring out how to solve a math problem as he was stepping into a bath, to those ideas that float into your head when you’re falling asleep.

Scientists think this happens, in part, because the world we live in is so complex that the brain needs to see it in two different ways at the same time. The left hemisphere of the brain handles denotation or the literal meaning of things. The right hemisphere of the brain handles connotation, or the symbolic meaning of things. Both are required to solve really complex problems. Getting them to work together – that is the part where the cuddling comes in.

By relaxing the flow of information between the sides of the brain, we can create an opportunity for insights to arise. Scientists can see a shift in the brain waves slightly before you make an insightful leap. (The study used riddles. For example, “I have two US coins whose total value is thirty cents. One of the coins is not a nickel. What are the two coins?” When you figure out that it’s a quarter and a nickel because one of them is not a nickel but the other one is, you’ve had a burst of insight.) Your brain waves shift enough for science to measure about 8 seconds before you figure that out. (Okay, so that example is a pretty old one, and it might not have taken you the whole 8 seconds to puzzle it out, but you get the idea, right?)

This Dionysian creativity part happens when your brain relaxes. If you’re trying to solve a tough problem, one that feels like it has you stumped, one of the best ways is to step away from the problem and relax your brain and just let the solution come to you. You’ve probably had that experience, when a tough problem solved itself while you were taking a walk or a shower or thinking about something completely different.

The challenge, then, is HOW do you relax your brain. There are lots of ways to do that. Meditation, spending time in nature (watching patterns like waves, grass rippling in wind, open flames, or swaying tree leaves helps). You know what else helps? CUDDLING!

How would cuddling help, you ask? Because it relaxes you. For most people, moderate intensity touch reduces heart rate and blood pressure. It also increases cognitive capacity and reduces anxiety. People who hold a stranger’s hand before they answer math problems get more math problems right. People who hold a stranger’s hand before speaking in public report less anxiety about speaking in public. The research points to a physiological response to touch (probably mediated through the vagus nerve and the oxytocin response) that helps people in a variety of ways – including helping them to relax their brain.

Nobody has studied breakthrough creativity and cuddling – yet. But what we do know about the way our brains work points to a strong possibility that that stubborn problem you can’t quite crack might just cough up a solution if you manage to relax your brain for a few minutes. Cuddling isn’t the only way you could do that, but it’s probably something you haven’t tried yet. Come check it out.

Great Expectations

I talk to a lot of people who are very concerned that, while I might understand that I’m not providing sexual services, my clients might be confused about that point. They’re worried about what might happen if a customer walks in with expectations that don’t match what I offer.

The simple answer to that concern is that I’m aware it could happen – and I don’t think there’s anything I can or need to do about it.

Think about it this way. If Sam the customer walked into a steakhouse and tried to order pasta, there’s a pretty good chance the server would say “I’m sorry, we don’t have that on our menu.” While most customers are gonna drop it at that point, there are some who won’t. Sam might argue with the server, or ask to talk to the manager. Hopefully Sam isn’t the type of person to threaten or carry out violence if they don’t get what they want – but it wouldn’t be the craziest reason someone pulled out a gun and threatened the people around them. Do you remember the iconic scene in Falling Down where Michael Douglas’ character flashes an automatic weapon in a fast food restaurant to get breakfast for himself when their menu has switched over to lunch? Do you remember that, when the movie was released, people were encouraged to identify with the guy who forced the fast food clerks to get him what he wants?

That movie is 25 years old, and surely wouldn’t play the same way today – but there are still people who are going to be mad when a business won’t give them exactly what they want. They’ll be mad when a burger joint won’t serve them pasta, or when a florist shop doesn’t carry helium balloons, or when a movie theater doesn’t have a show that starts that the time they want it to. Those people aren’t reasonable, and I am under no obligation to cater to unreasonable people in my business.

I’m very clear about what I do. The first line of my client agreement is “Holding Space, LLC provides platonic services including coaching, cuddling, and workshops. Clients and practitioners both agree not to pursue or encourage sexual activity or arousal during the session.” That’s every bit as clear as a steakhouse menu that doesn’t list pasta, or a fast food joint with a policy that they don’t serve breakfast after a certain time of day. People who read that statement and think I’m selling sexual encounters are not reasonable people.

People May Not Be Reasonable. That’s Not My Problem

Talk to anybody who’s done customer service for any length of time and they’ll tell you that lots of the people they encounter are not reasonable people. Some of them are even scary unreasonable. People ask me if I’m afraid of upsetting one of those unreasonable people.

Here’s the way I see it.

First, I see no reason to try and design a business that nobody can misunderstand – because that is not possible. My friend who plays in a children’s band and gets hit on by parents in libraries and at birthday parties was the one who clued me in that no matter what I do, there are going to be some people who think I’m adding a “wink, wink” at the end and leaving the door open for sexual encounters.

Second, my ability to maintain boundaries in the face of pressure is part of the service. The fact that I can (and do) say no to things that aren’t within my boundaries is surprising and confusing to some of my clients – but I do it anyway. If they don’t like it that’s…actually fine. The ability to say “I respectfully do not care whether you like it or not” is part of the boundary setting process. Boundaries aren’t about whether other people will like us or not. In fact, boundaries aren’t about other people at all. They’re about what we will and won’t accept in the world – and that’s not contingent on other people liking it, or you.

Third, while I’m aware that some people who don’t get what they want can become violent, I don’t think my risk is increased by working one on one with clients. Women are killed for saying no to men on a horrifyingly regular basis, it’s true. But these women aren’t professional cuddlers – they’re women going about their business in the world. This is a risk I face no matter what I do for a living. The idea that most sexual predators are “regular guys” who just get pushed too far by their own arousal is simply not supported by any of the research available. Men maintain the ability to control their behavior even when they are aroused. I’m very clear with my clients that I expect them to do that, and guess what? In a year of work, with well over 100 hours with clients, that works pretty well.

I understand that some people are going to think this is ridiculously naïve and optimistic. That’s okay, they can think that all they want. But I’m going to continue to do this work and to promote this profession, because I think it’s the change we need to see in the world.

I also believe that to create the world I want to live in, we have to have people willing to stand up and do things that are clearly ridiculous according to social norms. In the world I want to live in, ethically sourced nurturing and emotional labor are available and valued. In the world I want my grandchildren to be born into, consent is respected. I hope to help create a world where consent is understood and valued. I hope to help people understand that the restrictive gender roles I grew up with (where men were not allowed to seek or engage in nurturing without “losing their man card”) are ridiculous and as outdated as ankle-to-collarbone swimsuits.