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Fancy snuggling up to a stranger? The latest US craze has crossed the ocean... and you better not be precious about your personal space

Sligo life coach Grainne Carr is bringing the Cuddle Party concept to Belfast, which encourages people to touch - and even spoon - but in a strictly non-intimate way. Stephanie Bell catches up with her

Need a cuddle? Get yourself along to Belfast this weekend when a group of strangers will be coming together to enjoy an unusual party where they will be encouraged to touch, cuddle and even spoon together in a safe, non-sexual space.

Cuddle Parties is the latest craze from the US which is now taking the UK by storm and Northern Ireland is also embracing the concept with its fifth Cuddle Party on Saturday night.

Spreading the warmth of human touch on this side of the Irish Sea is Sligo life coach Grainne Carr who has introduced cuddle parties to Ireland and is now staging monthly events in Belfast.

The concept is based on the belief that as humans we all need touch and affection yet not everyone knows how to give or receive it.

Grainne's event starts with a workshop on consent, boundaries, communication and non-sexual conscious touch, designed to empower people to give and receive affection which they feel comfortable with.

The idea is that people can freely enjoy a cuddle without the pressure of feeling that it has to lead to something more intimate.

Grainne says: "It works and people are always amazed at how comfortable it feels. I understand it is an unusual thing especially in our society but it's going to become more popular and it is my vision to get the whole of Ireland, north and south, relaxed and confident about giving and receiving affection."

The event, which will last for three hours, will be hosted in a room with pillows where people can lie and chat, cuddle or simply hold hands.

Cuddle parties were introduced in America by New York relationship coaches Reid Mihalko (38) and Marcia Baczynski (28), who declared that the Western world was "touch and snuggle deprived".

They maintained that the happy cuddles of childhood were suppressed by an adult world of anxiety, mixed signals and people suing for sexual harassment.

Grainne (46), who is qualified as both a business and life coach, trained in hosting cuddle parties in the US.

She is convinced that despite our more reserved approach to life, the concept will take off here as much as it has in America.

She explains how it works: "Ultimately the idea of a cuddle party seems bizarre but it means different things to different people.

"The evening starts with a workshop on consent and boundaries and there are 11 rules which have to be followed and it is important that everyone is aware of how others are feeling and interacting.

"The idea is that everyone will feel safe, comfortable and happy and have a couple of hours to put what they learned during the workshop into practice by enjoying and exploring touch.

"This could be hugs, back rubs, a hand massage and yes, even spooning and just general non-sexual snuggling. Some people come just to chat and sit with other kind and caring folk - it's always the individual's choice how much or how little they would like to participate.

"Cuddle Party is a place to truly unwind, take time for yourself and feel good. It is a beautiful thing to give and receive touch on your own terms."

The feel-good factor is the main driver behind cuddle parties as well as benefits to your health.

Nurturing, welcome consensual touch is good for your body, heart and spirit but Cuddle Party organisers say it goes much further than that and can benefit your health by reducing blood pressure, relieving anxiety, and generally improving your well-being.

Grainne says that cuddling releases the feel-good chemical oxytocin which is why so many people are enjoying these get-togethers around the world.

She says: "There are a lot of people who are struggling through life and who feel sad or lonely or suffer stress, tension and anxiety through work or just because life is hard.

"The parties offer a nice three hours out, where they can get a burst of feel-good with the release of oxytocin.

"Oxytocin is a miracle chemical which is released when we feel warmth towards another person or give a kind and caring touch to one another.

"To feel so at ease and relaxed with someone you met for the first time an hour ago that you are comfortable sitting hand in hand creates that wonderful feeling of warmth. It is a gentle atmosphere where people can experience kindness and caring with no agenda and no pressure for it to go any further."

While they can be healing and rejuvenating, Grainne stresses that Cuddle Parties are not therapy. "Many people have found a deep support and growth in self-awareness and relationship skills. Others are fine with where they are, and come just for the fun of, it," she says.

For many of us the idea of snuggling up to a stranger may seem at the very least peculiar but Grainne has found that more and more people are welcoming the chance to receive and give affection for a variety of reasons.

Numbers at her Belfast parties so far have been around 10 without any promotion and she is so confident that they will grow in popularity that she is determined to ensure the opportunity is there for local people by committing herself to staging a party every month in the city.

She says: "We get people who come along because they are just curious and maybe don't participate which is fine.

"People are welcome to come simply to chat and sit with other kind and caring folk.

"Some people are already comfortable with touch and can't wait to be in a place where that's OK. Others aren't even sure they want any touch at all, but come to explore some communication skills.

"I've had couples come along, groups of friends as well as people on their own. Everybody loves it and they appreciate the softness and safety of it and just being able to give and receive affection and kindness.

"Some people in society don't get a hug or haven't had enough hugs in their lives. It is ideal for single people who don't have a partner but still want the affection of giving and receiving a hug at a non-sexual event.

"Consent is very important and knowing what you want and being able to say no and yes. Very often there are things in life that we don't want to do but we don't have the confidence to say no.

"That could be in a work environment or with friends who are persuading you to go out when you would rather curl up at home with a book.

"The workshop is designed to help everyone to be completely clear in terms of what their comfort levels are and feel empowered to say no and use that on a day-to-day basis in their lives.

"It's about honouring how you feel inside and being aware of your own levels of comfort and having the confidence to say what you want and what you don't want."

Cuddle Party is specifically designed to leave the sexual kinds of touch entirely off the menu so that the more inclusive, non-sexual kinds of touch have a chance to be found and enjoyed.

Grainne says some people never cuddle at a party but instead enjoy receiving and/or giving back rubs, head massages, arm or leg massages or simply chatting to new friends.

While most of us associate spooning as an intimate act with a partner, this close contact is also encouraged.

Grainne says: "Spooning is a lovely thing to do and at our cuddle parties there are lots of cushions and pillows and people are lying around fully clothed and they do spoon.

"In our society this kind of touch usually leads to something else but it doesn't have to and it is about people realising that they are free to cuddle with no expectation or demands on them and feeling secure."

If you fancy the idea, Grainne's Cuddle Party is being held in the Maitre Studio Belfast on Saturday from 7pm until 10pm with registration opening at 6.45pm. It costs £20 with a special discounted price of £10 for the unemployed and students.

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