When I think of the question “do stress balls work?”, I immediately remember the green stress ball with a face painted on it and a head full of unruly black hair I had as a kid. This was before I probably knew what really stressful situations felt like, but still squeezing it brought me relief.
Unfortunately, my green-skinned, floppy-haired stress ball was long gone before I reached more stressful stages of my life.
But, childhood playthings aside, most people have squeezed a stress ball or two. You can find stress balls all over corporate offices, university campuses, given out as branded swag, and there are even ones made specifically for kids.
But, with stress at record highs, and over half of Americans feeling stressed for large parts of their day, do stress balls work?
The Stress Ball Story
Before we get to the answer to “do stress balls work?”, the story of how they came about is pretty interesting.
As the story goes, the original stress ball dates back to thousands of years ago, when Chinese soldiers would squeeze walnuts in the palms of their hands to maintain focus while under stress.
Eventually, the walnut process evolved, and the Ming Dynasty replaced it with two small hollow iron balls called Baoding balls, which are rotated in the palm to activate meridians and improve health.
But Baoding balls are pretty different from the stress balls you and I are used to, and the story of the conventional stress ball might be a bit more relatable.
The squishy, singular ball that we’re familiar with dates back to the 80s when TV writer, Alex Carswell was having a bad moment in the office. Stressed out over a call he was on, he threw his pen at a framed picture of his mother and realized that the action made him feel better, but left him with a mess of broken glass to clean up.
So instead, he created the first official foam stress ball, which was meant to be thrown at a wall (and emitted the sound of shattering glass when it was). Many followed in his footsteps, and today there’s a variety of stress balls to choose from, now meant to be squeezed, not thrown.
Do Stress Balls Work?
Okay, stress balls aren’t going to melt away all of your stress, but they can help. To understand how stress balls can help alleviate stress, it’s essential to understand what happens in our bodies when we are exposed to stressors.
When we experience acute stress, like a looming deadline, being stuck in traffic, or having to make a tough decision, our body goes into a fight or flight response, or acute stress response.
During this process, there’s an extra flow of energy in the body as the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are released, leading to increased heart rate, stronger heart muscle contractions, more blood flow to large muscles and the heart, and sharpened senses.
At the same time, when we are exposed to stress, our muscles tense up in preparation for guarding ourselves against pain or injury.
This response creates pent up energy and tension that often has nowhere to go. Stress balls work in large part by providing an easy release of this pent up energy and tension.
In more technical terms, the process by which stress balls help relieve stress is called progressive muscle relaxation, and research shows it works.
But that’s not all; stress balls have other benefits too.
Benefits of Stress Ball
If you’re still on the fence, or skeptical about whether or not stress balls work, here are some benefits you’re missing out on.
1. Stress Balls Can Reduce Anxiety and Pain
Anxiety and stress are pretty well related, so stress balls being able to reduce anxiety makes sense, but I was pretty surprised to learn that squeezing a little foam ball can help reduce pain too.
In a study of methods for reducing pain and anxiety in surgery patients, researchers found that squeezing a stress ball reduced anxiety by 18% and pain by 22%.
2. Stress Balls Can Boost Creativity
The left (logistic) and right (creative) sides of the brain control different functions, and the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa. But what we do with our bodies can also impact how our brains work.
Based on this concept, psychology researchers were interested in testing the connection between muscle contractions and creativity.
They had participants take a creative problem-solving test while either squeezing a ball in the right hand, squeezing a ball in the left hand, or without squeezing a ball at all.
The participants that squeezed a ball in their left hand triggered and increased neural activity in the frontal lobe of the opposite (right) brain hemisphere, responsible for creativity. These participants had significantly higher scores on the creative thinking test than other participants.
3. Stress Balls Can Improve Memory
Sticking to the same concept from above, researchers wanted to test the connection of ball squeezing with memory.
They found that hand clenching can improve memory when done right.
In the study, participants who squeezed a ball in their right hand (left brain hemisphere activation) when hearing a list of words and then in their left hand (right brain hemisphere activation) before writing down the words they heard, scored best on a memory test.
These results were better than participants who squeezed a ball in a different order, and those who didn’t squeeze a ball at all.
Just remember, if you’re left-handed, this sequence should be reversed!
4. Stress Balls Can Improve Focus
Remember when you were younger and would fidget, and you were told to “sit still”? Or maybe it’s something that still happens today when you’re subconsciously clicking your pen or shaking your leg?
Well, researchers are starting to learn that this fidgeting can increase productivity and focus in the workplace.
Researchers from UC Davis also found that fidgeting in ADHD students can improve performance in school. They encourage teachers to allow fidgeting in the classroom in ways that are non-disruptive to other students (hint, hint - stress balls).
While these studies on fidgeting aren’t specific to the use of stress balls, other research does show that stress balls increase focus in 6th-grade learners.
In the study, stress balls helped reduce the frequency of distraction, improve writing skills, and left the learners feeling like their attitude, attention, writing abilities, and peer interaction improved due to the use of stress balls.
5. Stress Balls Can Reduce Blood Pressure
The sudden spike in blood pressure experienced when you’re exposed to acute stress is meant to help you, but over time stress and other factors can lead to overall high blood pressure, which can cause many health threats.
Research shows that handgrip exercises (slowly squeezing and releasing a small rubber or foam ball in the palm of your hand), can result in clinically significant reductions of blood pressure.
6. Stress Balls Can Restore Meridians and Balance Energy
In Chinese medicine, meridians are invisible energy pathways that run throughout our bodies and end at our feet or hands.
When these meridians are activated, energy flow through the body is balanced, alleviating many ailments and providing numerous health benefits.
While Chinese medicine and other ancient cultures have understood the existence of meridians for thousands of years, modern science is starting to support the concept, labeling these energy pathways the primo vascular system.
If we go back to the origin of the stress ball, the benefits provided by Baoding balls were due to the activation of meridians in the hands. So, in theory, a stress ball can have similar activating potential, although it will be less effective than other methods like acupressure and acupuncture.
Ready to Squeeze Some Stress Away?
Okay, so a stress ball isn’t going to solve all your stress-related problems, but combined with other methods of stress relief, it can help.
What’s your favorite form of stress relief that’s easy to do anytime and anywhere?