A 'professional cuddler', who has clients queueing up to pay £75 for an hour-long hug, has opened up about the benefits of cuddle therapy.
Trevor Hooton, 30, from Bristol, who identifies as non-binary and goes by the name Treasure, runs Embrace Connections offering a range of unconventional services. These include 'connections coaching', which helps people struggling to build relationships, but the service people are often most interested in is cuddle therapy.
They are also now offering 'cuddle parties' for £30 a session where people can come together "to explore and enjoy non-sexual physical connection in a safe, structured environment".
The cuddle parties see groups come together and spend time gaining trust and understanding physical touch – before gathering for a "shared comfortable, cosy cuddling experience", also know as a 'cuddle puddle'.
"The parties have been great, and I think it’s a really great way to provide value to lots of people at once," Treasure explains.
"I've done four parties so far and each one has been unique and special in its own way.
"We have a very mixed group – some people are single and unfamiliar to touch but want to develop comfort.
"On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are used to being touched and want more of it.
"Either way, the participants seem to walk away from it and love it."
Having added cuddle parties to their list of services, the next one planned is for Valentine's Day.
Describing the new service, Treasure says: "The first section of the party is a welcome and arrival and brief discussion of the expectations and boundaries of the space.
"Then we do a set of workshop activities to help people arrive in their own bodies and meet one another and learn to how to interact with one another."
After a break and some food, the cuddle puddle begins.
"Some people are strangers at the beginning and then at the end they feel close and powerful," he continues.
"I’m challenging the unspoken rules of society and think by challenging the rules we can reach something better for ourselves."
Treasure admits that not everyone understands exactly what their business offers, with some even mistaking it for sex work.
But they are keen to stress professional cuddling is not as novel a concept as it seems, believing everyone should consider it.
According to Treasure, the service they offer is more than just a hug, instead it's about "pouring care, affection and goodwill into someone through touch".
"I built a business based on my passions for building human connections," they explain.
"Many people struggle to make those and that's where I step in – it's more than just cuddling, it's giving people the things they need, whatever that might be.
"With cuddle therapists, you're hiring their time, attention and care. It's more than just hugging a stranger.
"Some people do find it a little awkward at first, but that's totally normal, and they quickly feel comfortable.
"People should ask themselves, 'If you could have an hour to do nothing but feel cared for, supported and loved, how would it make you feel?'"
Treasure first began looking into the science behind human connections 10 years ago, finding the concept fascinating.
But it wasn't until last year that they began working to turn it into a business, which they launched in May 2022.
Describing the professional cuddling service, Treasure says: "It's always a non-sexual, platonic intimacy, based on whatever the person wants.
"We meet, go over guidelines to ensure we're on the same page, and then structure the session based on what they want and their boundaries.
"There is a lot of checking in to see how they feel and what they want – whatever helps them to feel safe and calm."
Watch: Cuddle therapy is becoming a big hit
According to Treasure, the unusual service is different for everybody, and it can take some work to find the most effective approach.
Treasure says that while it can feel a little bit uncomfortable at first, the outcome is worth any awkwardness.
"It's not typical for most people to step into being intimate with a stranger," they explain.
"People come with their own insecurities or preconceptions but I do my best to help find a place where they are comfortable.
"And if the person starts to feel the start of something sexual, we communicate about that and back off, because it needs to be non-sexual intimacy."
According to the professional cuddler, there's a lot more to the service they offer than just hugging a stranger.
They have researched and explored the full theory behind it – including both the psychological and medical background.
"It's about communication and building trust," they explain. "Hugging a stranger doesn't do much, it has to be someone who cares about you."
Treasure hopes by speaking about cuddle therapy, people might gain a better understanding about what is involved.
"People have mistaken what I do for being an escort service, or prostitution," they explain.
"I can understand people might think it, but that's not what I do.
"It's just about helping people to feel good, safe and calm through human touch."
What is cuddle therapy?
Cuddle therapy is an approach that prioritises the importance of physical touch as a source of emotional connection, according to psychologist Dr Alison McClymont.
"The benefits of physical touch in a therapeutic setting relate back to a human's basic need for holding and connection that is instilled in us a baby," she explains.
Dr McClymont says the embrace we receive from our mothers in childhood helps us to associate cuddling as an act of well wishing, love and emotional security throughout our lives.
"The act of cuddling has been shown to release oxytocin (relaxing hormones) and endorphins (happy hormones) due to its connection with the infant-mother touch memory," she explains.
Experts say there are many positive health benefits of oxytocin release caused by physical touch including helping to reduce stress, easing pain and spiking intimacy.
And those benefits have been sorely missed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"The lack of physical connection between family members and friends due to enforced social distancing has been sorely felt by many," Dr McClymont explains.
"The usual forms of greeting and expressing love and emotion have been removed and for many it has felt strange not to be able to form connection in this basic way."
Read more: How does loneliness affect our health?
Read more: A day in the life of a sex therapist
While the impacts of a lack of physical contact may well inspire some to look to cuddle therapy, Dr McClymont stresses that cuddle therapy should only be carried out by a professional who should always respect the boundaries of the client.
"No therapist should touch you without your prior consent and your continuing consent," she adds.
But if cuddle therapy isn't for you, it is still possible to reap some of the benefits of a good hug.
"In our normal lives, it can wonderfully supportive to get a hug from a loved one," Dr McClymont explains. "It releases relaxing and loving hormones and has been shown to reduce cortisol, so get hugging!"
Additional reporting SWNS.
This article was originally published in July 2022 and has been updated.