Do Stress Balls Actually Have Benefits, or Are They Just a Nice Distraction?

Here's what the science says about this handheld stress relief tool.


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As kids, visits to the pediatrician often ended with a sticker or a lollipop. As adults, our medical appointments are more likely to conclude with a doctor’s recommendation to reduce our stress levels for the sake of our health—as if relieving stress was as simple as picking up a prescription at the pharmacy. 

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey for 2022, 76 percent of adults indicated that they had experienced at least one stress-induced symptom in the last month, with headache (38 percent), fatigue (35 percent), and feeling nervous or anxious (34 percent) being the most common. On top of that, more than one-quarter (27 percent) of adults surveyed reported that on most days, they’re too stressed to function.

While it’s impossible for most people to shelter themselves from stressors completely, there are a variety of both mental and physical strategies that can help make your stress levels more manageable. It’s hard to find any one-size-fits all solution for stress, but squeezing a stress ball, DIY or store-bought, has been a popular and accessible tension-busting option for the masses since their introduction in the 1980s.

But do stress balls actually work to reduce stress, or is the success of the stress ball based on clever marketing combined with a placebo effect? Does it even matter if they don’t pose any harm? Here’s what to know about using a stress ball to melt your worries away.

How Do Stress Balls Work?

To make sure we’re all on the same page, when we talk about “stress balls,” we’re referring to squishy, malleable objects that typically fit in the palm of your hand. They can be store-bought or homemade, and though most are round, they’re not all perfectly shaped orbs. In addition to helping to relieve stress, stress balls have a range of other benefits.

As their name suggests, stress balls are sold to frazzled consumers as a tool for reducing everyday tension and stress, but they have a range of physical benefits as well, says John Gallucci, Jr,, DPT, a physical therapist with expertise in injury prevention, rehabilitation, and sports medicine, and the CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy. “The action of working with a stress ball helps improve strength in the hand and forearm muscles, grip, and circulation, and can help alleviate pain such as pain associated with arthritis in the hands,” he says. 

According to Gallucci, these physical benefits translate into mental perks too. “Squeezing the stress ball also helps the mind focus on that movement,” he explains. “If there are any sources causing stress to the mind or body, they begin to diminish, as the focus is geared towards that movement of the hand.” 

Stress balls also help alleviate muscle tension, which, he explains, can improve your sleep and overall well-being.

The Research on Stress Ball Benefits

Experts like Gallucci and Laura Purdy, M.D., a Nashville-based family medicine physician, tout the potential benefits of stress balls based on their clinical experience, and there’s ample anecdotal evidence suggesting stress balls do provide some relief; but there’s been very little research done focusing specifically on how effective they are at relieving stress, and the results have been mixed. 

Almost every study assessing whether stress balls actually help reduce stress has been done on patients undergoing surgery or another type of medical procedure—exceptional situations that tend to make people anxious. Though useful in certain contexts, it’s a bit of a stretch to assume that these findings apply to the everyday stress people experience at work, at home, and beyond.

Plus, the findings of this research conducted in medical settings isn’t exactly conclusive. For example, a 2020 study involving 45 hemodialysis patients found that the self-reported stress levels of the participants who squeezed a stress ball for 10 to 15 minutes during eight successive dialysis sessions “decreased significantly” over the course of the research. That said, using stress balls had no effect on their comfort levels, or vital signs related to stress (physiological markers like heart rate and blood pressure that increase when under stress). 

Meanwhile, studies published in 2015 and 2018 that tested two or more methods thought to alleviate stress—including squeezing stress balls, as well as interacting with nurses, watching videos, and listening to music—found that stress balls did, in fact, help reduce patients’ stress, but no more so than the other techniques. Somewhat similarly, a separate study from 2018 found that neither using a stress ball, nor holding someone’s hand improved patients’ stress levels.

Research assessing the effectiveness of stress balls that doesn’t involve medical patients is limited to a small 2015 study of 30 college students. After a period of induced stress, half the group (15 students) were given a stress ball to squeeze, while the other half received nothing. The researchers measured a few physical indicators of stress—including heart rate and blood pressure—at the beginning and end of the experiment, and when they compared the results, they found no significant differences between the groups.

Of course, none of this is to say that stress balls don’t live up to their name. While other relaxation trends have come and gone, these squishy spheres have been around for more than 30 years. And with little to no risk of causing any harm (if used correctly), if stress balls work for you, there’s no reason you shouldn’t use them!

How to Buy a Good Stress Ball

A quick online search will yield an overwhelming number of products, so here’s what to look for in a stress ball before you add to cart. First, consider the fit and feel. Find a ball that fits comfortably in your hand, Dr. Purdy says. Along the same lines, Gallucci  suggests looking for one with a density and level of grip strength that provides enough resistance, but isn’t too difficult to squish. 

Additionally, pay attention to the construction and materials. “[Look for] one that’s made from nontoxic materials, BPA-free, and easy to wash,” Gallucci says, noting that a stress ball with a durable core, covered in nonstick fabric typically lasts longer. “Since this will be an item that you or your family will have on hand, it is important that they’re made with the best materials.” 

How to Make a Stress Ball at Home

It’s also possible to make a DIY stress ball using items found in your own home. “One of the easiest ways to create an at-home stress ball is to put corn starch, uncooked rice, or sand into a balloon,” Gallucci says. “Using sand or cornstarch will make it softer when you squeeze, and rice will give the stress ball more texture—it’s a personal preference.” Purdy adds that you can also fill a balloon with flour. 

No balloons in your immediate vicinity? You could also take a sock (with no holes) and fill it with uncooked rice, sand, dried peas or lentils, then either tie a knot at the opening of the sock or close it up with a tight, sturdy rubber band. This will be a slightly firmer and less squishy version of a stress ball, but it will certainly get the job done.

“A word of caution: Those things can break,” Dr. Purdy says. “And covering your room in exploded flour is the opposite of stress relief!” Because the latex in the balloon breaks down over time, Gallucci says these stress balls only tend to last between one week and four months.

Who Should Use a Stress Ball?

People of any age can use stress balls to help release pent-up anger and emotions, Gallucci says. “The intent of a stress ball is to provide someone [with] a high level of stress or anxiety [with] an outlet for some of the extra energy,” Dr. Purdy explains. “Stress and anxiety is a state of activation, and the person often feels like they need to do something to relieve that tension.” 

And because stress balls are made of compressible, smooth, soft material, someone can squeeze one as hard as they want without hurting their hand, Dr. Purdy adds. “If someone is feeling stressed and like they need an outlet, a stress ball is a great choice,” she says. “It can be great in the office, especially if you don’t have time to leave and go to the gym, take a walk, or do something else to relieve the stress.”

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