The science of cuddling

    When students complain about stress, they don’t necessarily focus on alleviating it. If they knew temporary relief could be found simply from a couple minutes of cuddling, there’d be fewer frantic Norris conversations that go something like, “I am literally done and just can’t anymore.”

    So grab a cuddle buddy and keep reading; it’s for your mental health.

    An old study by psychologist Harry Harlow found that when given the choice between an inanimate surrogate mother made of wire or one made of cloth, orphaned baby macaque-rhesus monkeys preferred the cloth-covered option. The cloth moms provided the perfect amount of “snugglability” and actually improved the orphans’ health. By clinging to the cloth surrogates, they were more likely to eat and drink properly, be psychologically stable and flourish in general.

    The hormone oxytocin, which is the key to happiness and well-being not only in baby monkeys but also in baby humans, facilitates contact comfort. It’s affectionately known as the “love hormone” and “cuddle hormone.”

    So how can we capitalize on oxytocin’s power over our mental and physical health?

    If you aren’t the touchy-feely type, you can quite literally copy the Harlow study and create an artificial snuggle situation: Tightly wrap yourself in a warm blanket and, if you want, hug a large pillow.

    Lisa Ferentz, author of Treating Self Destructive Behaviors in Trauma Survivors: A Clinicians Guide, recommends patients participate in blanket wrapping and pillow hugging if they ever feel the urge to engage in self-destructive behavior. The warmth that results from wrapping and hugging is often enough to distract and temporarily soothe. It seems simple but anyone who suffers from the winter blues or exam anxiety can use this as a coping strategy.

    But if you enjoy skin-on-skin action of the romantic or platonic variety, find a cuddle partner who, in the words of sex advice columnist Dan Savage, is “good, giving and game.” Establish what kinds of snuggling you enjoy. Perhaps consult Rob Grader’s The Cuddle Sutra, a collection of helpful cuddle position pictorials not unlike the famed Kama Sutra.

    Experiment with different locations: couch, bed, floor, secluded library corner, igloo ... and check on each person’s PDA tolerances. Will this be a “During Netflix Only” activity or will it extend to spontaneous after-class seshes? If it is indeed platonic, are there certain boundaries that cannot be crossed without making things awkward?

    For those seeking the perfect cuddle buddy, Grader has some key advice: Do a quick gut check when the cuddling commences. Do you want this to go on and on? Or are you counting the seconds until you can escape without seeming harsh? When you’re this physically intimate with someone, instincts always tell the truth.

    Word to the wise on romantic snuggle buddies: Oxytocin is a large reason why prolonged hook-up concepts like the classic “friends with benefits” often get skewed quickly. Why? Intense physical contact can often send signals to the brain that you’re super content and need more of whatever activity is creating that feeling. Casual sex and any form of post-sex touching constitute this super-content feeling.

    Physical contact essentially becomes a drug that sustains happiness. And we all know drugs should be used with caution. Isn’t it rich how “Hugs, not Drugs” loses all relevance when hugging—in its many complex forms—is doing the drugging?


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