JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Hannah Cunningham closes the door to her office in Flowood and changes into a pair of pink pajamas.

A moment later, she reopens the door. She is ready to cuddle.

Ashlynn Easterday, a client who's volunteered to help Cunningham demonstrate cuddle therapy for this story, removes her shoes and hat.

The office is a small room containing little more than a mattress. (Cunningham hopes to make enough money to rent a bigger space one day.) She climbs onto the bed and sits cross-legged.

Easterday lays her head on Cunningham's lap. Easterday recently lost her grandmother and chose this position because it's how her grandmother used to hold her.

Cunningham strokes Easterday's head and talks with her in a quiet voice. Asks how her day was. Tells her she was courageous to visit her grandmother's grave.

Wait, is this cuddle therapy or regular therapy?

"I'm not a licensed counselor, but anybody can check on somebody. I do chat with clients unless they prefer not to," Cunningham says later.

As with counseling, Cunningham keeps client information confidential, with obvious exceptions when there are safety concerns, she says.

She continues stroking Easterday's head throughout the interview and checks on her a couple of times: "Do you need to change positions?" and "Are you still comfortable?"

For her part, Easterday says she normally sees a counselor, "and they say it's not a judgmental environment, but it sort of is judgmental. It's nice to come in (here) and just talk. Sort of like a friend."

What is cuddle therapy?

No, it's not a "prostitution thing" or a prank, Cunningham says.

Cunningham rents her office/cuddle space from Regus at the Dogwood shopping center. She finished a certification process two months ago through a company called Cuddlist, which has cuddle therapists in 24 states, Washington D.C. and a couple of spots in Canada.

Cuddlist isn't the only company of paid cuddlers. There's also The Snuggery in New York, Cuddle Up To Me in Oregon, The Snuggle Buddies (with snugglers all over the place) and others.

Cunningham, who is married, is the first Cuddlist practitioner in Mississippi. The Snuggle Buddies also boast a cuddler in Gulfport and one in Meridian.

It's easy to see how folks might be skeptical about cuddle therapy, but a quick Google search reveals numerous articles on the science behind safe, non-sexual touch. As early as 2012, Psychology Today ran a Ph.D.-penned piece called "Cuddling Is So Important, It May Be Worth Paying For."

Cunningham says the scientific purpose of cuddle therapy is to release the oxytocin hormone, which she calls the "relaxed, feel-good hormone — not to be confused with dopamine, which is more of the sexual, no-no type of hormone. We don't do that here."

Oxytocin also helps with blood pressure, digestion and breathing, she says.

"We're slowly learning as a society that platonic touch is necessary for overall health, just as much as meditation or laughter," Cunningham says.

So how exactly does one become a cuddler-for-hire?

Cuddle training and consent

A Mississippi native who's spent time here and in Georgia, Cunningham was working in fast food and not using her elementary education degree when she discovered Cuddle Up To Me founder Samantha Hess on YouTube a year ago.

"She provides this (service that) makes absolute sense. She's my inspiration," Cunningham says.

Cunningham found Cuddlist, went through a background check, took an online course and attended a "cuddle party," where "they teach you consent games," before taking a final exam for her certification.

Consent is just as important in cuddle therapy as it is in sexual situations, Cunningham says, though she emphasizes the non-sexual nature of cuddle therapy. Touching sexual areas and any "exchange of saliva" are prohibited by Cuddlist. Cunningham says lip contact of any kind is not allowed.

"If (the cuddlist or client is) not comfortable, (either person) can literally say at any time, 'Stop,'" she says, putting her hands in the air in a "stop" motion for emphasis.

For her final exam, Cunningham cuddled with Cuddlist co-founder Madelon Guinazzo, who approved her Cuddlist certification. (Cuddlists may video themselves doing a session or pay a Certified Cuddlist $80 an hour to evaluate them.)

Guinazzo has "years of experience coaching communication with healthcare professionals and facilitating workshops on cuddling and consent with groups of people," according to the Cuddlist website.

Finally, James Bennett of Hinds Community College's Small Business Development Center helped Cunningham start her business.

So far, she's had eight sessions, "which is probably OK for just getting started," Cunningham says.

Who needs to cuddle?

The majority of Cunningham's clients have been men in their mid-40s. It's easy to hear that and immediately feel creeped out.

But Cunningham emphasizes the boundaries — such as mandatory pre-session phone or Skype interviews to make sure both cuddlist and client are comfortable — and says that oftentimes "men tend to be more physical creatures, (whereas) women need that verbal and emotional support."

Also, "I work in a public office building, the same way a counselor or lawyer would."

And there are the physical parameters — plus a dress code that requires a minimum of a tank top and mid-thigh shorts.

When clients book a cuddling session, they answer the question, "What do you want to get out of the session?" Cunningham's clients have listed stress relief, companionship and merely to feel better overall as desired outcomes.

Easterday says she felt "a lot more relaxed" after her first session with Cunningham. "I don't want to say (I felt) high, but I just felt good."

"She got all this crap out of her system," Cunningham says. "I was glad about that."

Cunningham also says she herself has "been more relaxed of a person" since starting her new career.

When asked what else she wants people to know about cuddle therapy, Cunningham says it isn't going anywhere.

"Yes, we're real, and we're not crazy."

___

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com