We are delighted to share the next instalment of our practitioner interview series with Kristiina, who also worked as a carer, prior to becoming a cuddle therapist. Kristiina speaks about how caring work and cuddle therapy share certain similarities, the impact of her first ever cuddle session, and provides advice for those wishing to become a cuddle therapist.
You used to work before as a care worker. In what ways do you think caring has helped you to work as a cuddle practitioner? Are there any similarities between those roles? Both professions - being a carer and a cuddler - focus on working with individuals who are vulnerable one way or another (although for cuddle therapy one might just simply be touch deprived or slightly stressed and in need of relaxation, and not necessarily suffering in bigger ways) and need assistance for having their everyday needs met. The purpose is essentially the same – to help the person through very humanistic approach. In that sense, being a carer provided me with a strong foundation to understand how to create a safe environment, and how to be sensitive and attuned to someone’s needs (emotional, psychological or physical) and boundaries. I think those life skills, and similar ones such as patience, good communication skills – expressing yourself clearly as well as being a good listener, knowing how and when to be gentle with one another, and when to use assertiveness and respect each other’s boundaries - can help us all in life, whether it be professionally in almost any field, or personally in relating to other people around us. In other respects, being a carer and a cuddle practitioner are complete opposites. The former may use little or no touch at all, especially with younger people, while cuddle session provides a direct communication through physical contact, body language and touch. Once you settle into the session and begin to feel grounded not much else is needed. In cuddle therapy the real need is for caring physical contact which is essential to our health and well-being as humans, and as social creatures. The same way that we are built to eat and rest, we are also built to connect and embrace. What aspects of being a cuddle therapist do you enjoy? Each time I get to host a cuddle session for someone I am still as excited as I was on my first one with Rebekka. I remember how blown away I was by the simplicity and beauty of it. Yet the effects were profound and undeniable on many levels. I felt connected, seen and held as a human being. My thoughts became quiet, and the ones I had reflected back to my childhood and the feelings of never having experienced sisterly affection - so a certain kind of void started being healed within. Years before I had struggled with various anxieties and panic attacks, and although I managed to overcome a great deal through talking therapies, my body was still holding onto tension and emotions that were never expressed in the moment. Yet at this moment I could feel how a loving touch or hug contained the power to melt away any barriers, opening up my body and allowing this tension to be released. Spiritually, I could feel how we are far more intimately connected with each other and can communicate with each other in a deeper sense than is often considered. This was my experience, but it is one example of many, and I think that’s the most beautiful aspect about cuddle therapy: everyone goes through their own little journey – in fact it could be different each time, as we learn to receive, let go and connect. Although I don’t think there is a magical wand in life that can suddenly fix all of our problems, I have often worked with severely traumatised individuals who sometimes have come to the sessions feeling visibly depressed and unhappy, but no one has ever left without a smile on their face and this has been very touching to witness. So, I think hugs and the power of touch could very well be one of the most remarkable forms of magic that has ever existed in history. However, as a form of professional therapy it’s still quite new to people. I just remember I kept thinking after the end of my session with Rebekka: ‘Wow, I don’t know what just happened but I feel so present, so alive, so calm and this is something that, in my experience, is unique to this kind of therapy!’ I immediately wanted more people to know about it so that they could enjoy the benefits and have as wonderful an experience as I had.
What have the challenges been for you?
I think the biggest challenge for me has been internalising what being a professional truly means and which kind of boundaries, besides physical ones, there must be in place. As Nina McIntosh explains in her book (The Educated Heart) that ‘when we hear the word “professional,” we may think of a clinical atmosphere, or a distant and aloof therapist (perhaps that’s why also a lot of people are still sceptical about professional cuddle therapy) but being professional is just an educated way of being kind.’ In other words, it actually means that clients can get the full benefits of cuddles and touch in a completely secure environment, which is especially important for people who have had little, or negative, experiences around touch. The gentle attentiveness that is almost like a partner's can be wonderfully healing, but also disastrously harmful if clear intentions and boundaries are not present. That’s where our work as professionals come in - so it’s not just about the mechanics of touch, but also understanding human psychology, the powerful effects of bodywork and oxytocin, the dynamics between the client and the practitioner and transferences that could occur between them. Platonic intimacy is completely new for a lot of people, and so is coming out of time spent in left-brain activity. Some clients might feel obligated to chat as if the session were a social interaction, however just enjoying complete silence instead can feel very tranquil. If the individual has experienced a lot of loneliness and abandonment as a child it’s quite natural to hope for the practitioner to be the all-giving, unconditionally-loving parent they wished they’d had. In this way the session can quickly turn into psychotherapy or counselling, which, of course is not something the cuddle practitioner is trained to do (though, as separate therapies, they go very well hand-in-hand). Lastly, the altered states of relaxation we experience during the sessions take us closer to the unconscious mind, so it’s important for the practitioner to take on the responsibility to make sure that words exchanged are as healing as possible.
For whom would you recommend a cuddle therapy course? I would recommend a cuddle therapy course for anyone who is interested to know and learn more about the science of touch, the body’s autonomic nervous system, how affection deprivation affects us, and how different hormones work in our bodies and during touch. The Nordic Cuddle course also talks about the wheel of consent, communication, boundaries and self care. I personally found it very useful and interesting to know more about such an important topic - which concerns us all - scientifically explained and made very easy to understand. I think now, more than ever, living in a technology-oriented world and considering the recent effects of Covid-19, there is a real need to make those subtle and yet easily denied needs, such as touch, solid and present in our everyday lives. Taking a cuddle therapy course is one way of empowering our needs, and also a way of empowering ourselves to find fulfilment as holistic human beings.
Do you have any advice for people wishing to become a cuddle therapist?
My advice would be to begin with the course and learn the practical aspects of the training. Alongside that, work on firm self-care: knowing your boundaries; making sure you have a secure relationship, trust and bond with yourself firstly; and that you are comfortable working with people one-to-one. If your love language is touch and you enjoy holding people and, in turn, being held, and you’d like to help normalise platonic intimacy, this could be a very fulfilling career to embark on. And as you go along and come across different challenges and learning curves, it always helps to have a strong community of colleagues around you for support and guidance.