Need a hug? Lauren Venaglia wants to sell you one. 

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"This whole time I'm just putting all of my energy toward them and focusing on them and staying present with their feelings and what's going on. So it can be a really nice clearing of the mind. It can be really meditative."

Venaglia is currently seeing about five recurring clients, and has 12 signed up for group cuddle parties. Private sessions cost $1 per minute, and can last from 30 minutes to three hours.

And if it seems odd to commodify an activity like cuddling, just think for a moment of all the people in the world who may not have access to safe, nurturing, friendly touch on a consistent basis: single people, the elderly, people who work strange hours, people with disabilities.

Venaglia sees this work as especially crucial in a state like Montana, where depression and suicide have been a plague for decades. In 2014, Montana had the highest suicide rate in the United States, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

Venaglia sees cuddle therapy as a way to reach out to people who might be on the edge. "For me, bringing professional cuddling to Montana and expanding eventually to more rural areas, I think will really help communities," Venaglia says.

click to enlarge Cuddle therapy is an informal, self-regulated profession, but the benefits of nurturing physical contact are well documented. Lauren Venaglia used The Snuggle Party Guidebook, which includes activities, prompts and suggestions, as a reference to help plan Garden City Cuddle Co.’s group gatherings. - PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Cuddle therapy is an informal, self-regulated profession, but the benefits of nurturing physical contact are well documented. Lauren Venaglia used The Snuggle Party Guidebook, which includes activities, prompts and suggestions, as a reference to help plan Garden City Cuddle Co.’s group gatherings.

Anne Harris, a Missoula-based licensed clinical professional counselor, says she believes that cuddling can provide an avenue of support for mental health care. Though cuddling is currently an informal, self-regulated profession, Harris says that doesn't diminish its value. Clinical counseling sometimes uses touch therapy, Harris says, most often in group settings where, for example, one person might stand back-to-back with another while role-playing a difficult scenario. Such supportive touch complements attentive listening.

"A lot of good therapy is turning back to one of the most important things that happens: developing rapport and good communication with someone by doing good listening," Harris says.

Harris, who met Venaglia through mutual friends, says cuddle or touch therapy also has promise for soothing lonely, upset people, especially in settings like hospice care.

"Lauren's being a brave pioneer to bring that service to Missoula," Harris says.

Harris also agrees with Venaglia that humans, as a highly social species, need physical and emotional affection to survive.

A series of famous Harvard studies of overcrowded Romanian orphanages in the 1990s found that neglected orphans, desperate for human contact, suffered from underdeveloped brains and often had trouble forming attachments to their adoptive families.

Decades of research has shown that oxytocin, nicknamed the "cuddle hormone," is released when people bond socially or physically. Oxytocin is also crucial to facilitating childbirth and nursing, according to a 2007 study published in Psychological Science.

The importance of cuddling babies is well understood—the World Health Organization strongly recommends that new moms and babies cuddle as much as possible—but Venaglia observes that cuddling acceptance often decreases with age. Loneliness among adults is commonly reported, including a 2010 AARP survey in which 40 percent of adults reported feelings of loneliness and isolation—up from 20 percent in 1980. Psychologists refer to lack of physical closeness as "skin hunger." Adults suffering from skin hunger demonstrate depression, anxiety and an increase in physical health problems, according to an Arizona State University study.

Venaglia's own family was far from affectionate.

"My mom would not hold my hand when I was a child because she was afraid people would think we were lesbians," Venaglia remembers.

Venaglia discovered Buddhism as a teenager and still looks to the Dalai Lama as a source of inspiration—especially in videos where he chats with his longtime friend, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In a 2015 video, for instance, the two spiritual leaders hold hands, laugh and tease each other. The Dalai Lama even playfully slaps Tutu. It's a display that would be highly unusual among straight-identified men in Western culture.

"They'll hold hands, and eye gaze, and say these meaningful things to each other, and I love them," Venaglia says. "For my whole life that's kind of been my source of figuring out how to heal and be healthy."

click to enlarge Venaglia founded Garden City Cuddle Co. to provide a safe space for platonic, nonsexual touch, which research shows has mental and physical health benefits. Venaglia demonstrates gentle head compression with friend Alexis Baker in Venaglia’s home. - PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Venaglia founded Garden City Cuddle Co. to provide a safe space for platonic, nonsexual touch, which research shows has mental and physical health benefits. Venaglia demonstrates gentle head compression with friend Alexis Baker in Venaglia’s home.

Lately, Venaglia has been practicing the Buddhist "hugging meditation," in which two people hold each other and breathe in and out three times. Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh says of the meditation: "With the third breath, we are aware that we are here together, right now on this earth, and we feel deep gratitude and happiness for our togetherness."

(Venaglia once dated a Buddhist monk, and says it can be awkward to make out with someone who's so intensely mindful. "I have a little pop in my jaw and he was like, 'Oh, your jaw pops,'" Venaglia says. "I was like, 'What? You're not supposed to say that.")




In some ways, cuddling is an ideal small business: Overhead is low and Venaglia can build a client base with in-home visits before committing to an office space—Venaglia envisions something downtown, decorated as a "magical bedroom" with soft lighting and a comfortable queen-size bed. After completing the Certified Cuddlers course, Venaglia took a business plan to the Missoula branch of the Montana Small Business Development Center, where Regional Director Jennifer Stephens helped outline realistic goals. Stephens says she hears pitches from all kinds of unusual small startups, but she's impressed with Garden City Cuddle Co.'s vision.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "The Cuddler"

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