As researchers delve deeper into the dangers of loneliness, Canadians are turning to paid professionals to find the healing power of human contact.
When John Chapman lost his wife of 25 years last winter, he went numb. "I felt like I had flatlined emotionally," he says. Although emotional support from family and friends was plentiful, the 53-year-old Vancouver man felt utterly alone. It wasn't until he sought the assistance of a therapist, however, that he realized how much he missed human touch. "I remember feeling very solitary and thinking, I'd love to have someone to hug," says John. "But lying down and holding someone in the family while I talked and cried would have been uncomfortable."
So what exactly is professional cuddling?
â€¨He booked a session with the Cuddlery, a professional cuddling company that operates across Canada, and experienced two hours of lying side by side with a cuddler, talking, crying and even laughing. "I needed that emotional release," he says. The experience was so cathartic that John became a financial partner in the business, and he now helps with some day-to-day operations, though he donates his profits from the Cuddlery to Charity Science, an organization that distributes money to charities that do the most global good. For John, reintroducing touch into his life during a difficult and lonely time was an important part of moving forward. To be clear, a cuddling session is not code for sex. Rather, it's a caring exchange—which can range from holding hands to spooning and light massage (think of a mother comforting her newborn)—between a client and a cuddler.
â€¨Cuddle cafés have existed in Asia since 2012, though these establishments are largely geared toward lonely men, and their platonic nature may be questionable. That's not the case here. Billed as Canada's first professional cuddle company, the Cuddlery was launched in December 2014, after founder Marylen Reid discovered how difficult it is to truly connect with people on a nonsexual physical level. (Within four months of launching the Cuddlery, Reid says three more businesses of the same nature popped up in Canada.) "We live in an era where sex is easier to get than affection," she explains.â€¨
There's a big difference between a carnal encounter and a caring cuddle. "Touch deprivation is related to lower self-esteem and depression," says Reid. "As for affection, loneliness is considered a factor for dying younger. Research has shown that people who do not receive adequate amounts of touch develop communication problems, like impaired speech function and aggression."
Since launching the Cuddlery in Vancouver, Reid has recruited 17 cuddlers across the country, from Calgary to St. John's. A session with the Cuddlery runs from $49 for 30 minutes to $159 for two hours. (There's an additional fee for skin-to-skin contact, which involves wearing shorts and a T-shirt.) You can opt to go to your cuddler's home for a private session or even meet in public.
Of course, there's a bit of a giggle factor attached to the notion of a cuddling company. After all, that kind of physical affection is usually reserved for a child or a pet; in an adult context, we typically associate it with a couple in post-sex bliss or Netflix-induced repose. But studies have proven, time and again, how healing human touch can be. According to Dr. Susan Pinker, a Montreal psychologist and author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier, human touch releases "a whole cascade of neuro-transmitters and hormones. These neuro-chemicals promote trust, increase immunity and resilience and lower blood pressure."
Canadians are feeling lonelier
When you consider the rates of loneliness in Canada, a cuddling company doesn't seem so funny after all. A 2012 study revealed that one in five Canadians aged 65 and older feels lonely at least some of the time; for those aged 85 and older, the rate is even higher at one in four. Seniors aren't the only ones who suffer from isolation, either. A 2013 survey published by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services found that almost 64 percent of postsecondary students felt very lonely in the preceding year.
In response, people of varying ages are increasingly turning to social media and dating sites to feel connected, but these online platforms can actually exacerbate loneliness. As far back as 1998, researchers coined the term "Internet paradox," a phenomenon whereby online relationships lead to a decline in real-life relationships and an increase in depression and loneliness. More recently, psychologists have uncovered a condition called Facebook depression: feelings of low self-esteem, jealousy and loneliness tied to frequent use of the social media platform.
"When [people] are feeling lonely or distressed, they will often communicate more with strangers or semistrangers on Facebook than they will go out and seek people in person, and the effect is that it decreases their mood," says Dr. Pinker. "The more they're online, the less they make friends offline and the lonelier they become." And while it's easy to assume that disconnecting from the Internet and reconnecting in person will curb loneliness, reaching out can be difficult—and may not always produce the desired result.
Rachel Molloy, now an Ottawa-based cuddler with the Cuddlery, had a particularly difficult year in 2009. Shortly after moving to Winnipeg, her husband, who's in the military, was called to Canadian Forces Base Trenton for a 10-week course, and she was left alone with a toddler and a colicky infant. "When I called friends and family to talk about it, I felt like a burden," she says. "I eventually stopped going out and calling people. But if someone had just given me a hug and told me it was OK, I would have been fine and I would have realized sooner that there was nothing wrong with me."
That's where cuddle cafés come in. Rachel draws from her personal experience when working with her clients. "[I tell them] that we're all worthy of happiness and it's OK to need a hug every once in a while," she says. "When my clients have a session with me, they are happier, they laugh and they go out into the world and do more."
The side-effects of loneliness
While loneliness may appear to be a social problem, it actually poses serious physical health risks.
Lonely people are often comically depicted in movies and on TV as pajama-clad singles who sit at home on Saturday night, drinking wine straight from the bottle. Despite this pathetically charming picture, the realities of loneliness can be physically damaging.
John T. Cacioppo psychology professor and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at The University of Chicago, has linked a host of ailments—poor immune function, elevated blood pressure, increased levels of stress hormones, poor sleep quality, poor executive functioning, obesity and dementia—to loneliness in seniors. Loneliness, he writes, "could be considered a serious risk factor for poor health, joining more established factors such as obesity and smoking."
It doesn't help that loneliness can make it more difficult for individuals to control impulses, like junk-food cravings.
In a similar vein, author Johann Hari discovered a link between loneliness and addiction while researching his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Scientists found that solitary rats consumed more heroin- or cocaine-laced water compared to a group of rats caged together.
And the risks can start in adolescence. A new U.S. study has linked weak social bonds in the teen years to an increased risk of hypertension and abdominal obesity, which means that it's just as important for adolescents to socialize as it is for them to eat well and exercise.
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This story was originally part of the "Back in Touch" article in the May 2016 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!