Stress balls are squishy balls that you squeeze in the palm of your hand or with your fingers, to either help relieve stress and muscle tension or to exercise the muscles of the hand. The original stress balls purportedly date back thousands of years to when Chinese soldiers would squeeze walnuts in the palms of their hands to maintain focus while under stress.
Modern style squishy stress balls were invented by American Alex Carswell. Carswell was allegedly having a bad day at the office when he threw his pen at a framed picture of his mother. Whilst he recognised that the action made him feel better ‘in the moment’, he was left with a mess of broken glass to clean up, so he created a foam stress ball which contained a microchip that when thrown at something, activated a glass shattering sound.
But can a stress ball really help to relieve stress? We decided to investigate and in so doing we found that the humble stress ball can actually help with a whole lot more than just stress relief.
Stress Balls can help relieve stress
Stress balls are great for relieving tension and pent up frustration. Many people find that when they are going through a period of stress they feel the need to do something with their hands. The act of repeatedly squeezing a stress ball can help to release tension and relieve stress. Stress balls can be squeezed over and over again until you feel your nerves calming down because most are made from materials that regain their original shape when they are not being squeezed. Squeezing the ball activates the muscles of your hand and wrist, releasing the grip allows the muscles to relax. The repeated pattern of grip and release helps to alleviate tension and stress and is an activity that you can do anywhere.
Stress Balls can improve your mood
Hands and feet have nerve endings that are connected to your brain. These nerve endings are connected to the limbic region, which is the area of the brain responsible for controlling emotions. Pressing a stress ball into your palm has an effect like acupressure, where stimulating the nerves in one area works to help another area of your body. When the nerves connected to your brain are stimulated by pressing a stress ball, it also relieves muscular tension and helps to secrete endorphins that minimise the cortisol levels in the blood, also helping to improve your mood.
Stress Balls can help to distract
Stress balls can help distract from difficult, anxious or overwhelming situations - like a cancer diagnosis. If your thoughts are going round and round in circles, by focusing on something outside your mind, like squeezing the stress ball, you’re helping to divert attention away from the factor that caused you stress. The repeated action of gripping and releasing the stress ball also mimics the calming effect you get while practising yoga and meditation.
There is an element of mindfulness to squeezing a stress ball. Try squeezing a stress ball really tightly. If you haven’t got a stress ball to hand you can use a bundle of socks or even just clench your fists. Feel the stress ball in your hand. Pay attention to the sensation of your hand holding the ball. Notice what your tendons look like and how the skin stretches over the knuckles. Are your thumbs inside or outside your fist? Pay attention to what it feels like in your hand and your arm as you gently (or not so gently) squeeze the ball. Then shift the ball to the other hand.
Do this for one minute, closing your eyes, paying attention to the sensations in your hand and arm as you hold the ball and shift between hands. You don’t need to stop thinking about anything else, just make sure that at least part of your attention is focused on feeling the sensation in your hand and arm as you hold the ball in each hand.
By redirecting our focus to the present moment, we can tune in to how we’re really feeling physically and mentally. It allows us to break thought spirals and regain small moments of refreshing calm.
Stress Balls can help to focus
Stress balls have also been linked to help with focusing the mind if diagnosis and treatment are causing difficulties with concentration. Molding and reshaping virtually any rubbery material (including toys like Play-Doh and Silly Putty, or even a rubber band or hair tie) can help keep the mind stimulated while you're focusing on larger tasks.
Research is beginning to show that ‘fidgeting’ can increase productivity, improve focus and boost creative thinking in the workplace as well as helping students focus their attention and get less distracted in class.
These studies tap into a relatively new field of research called ‘embodied cognition’ that maps the connection between body movement and cognitive functioning and the research is starting to explain why students who take notes in longhand retain knowledge better than those that use a laptop, or why children who play with blocks and puzzles show better performance on spatial reasoning tests and even how counting on your fingers can improve mental arithmetic function. The growing list of connections between certain hand movements and cognitive functioning goes on and on.
Stress Balls can reduce pain and anxiety during surgery
According to research carried out by the University of Surrey, stress balls can ease pain and anxiety during surgery. Being conscious during an operation can make patients feel anxious and is often painful but the research found that simple distraction techniques, such as using stress balls, can help patients to relax during surgery and reduce their pain. Patients that used a stress ball during surgery showed 18 per cent less anxiety and 22 per cent less pain than those who received treatment as usual.
Stress Balls can help pump your veins
Cancer patients are usually stuck with needles many, many times and as chemotherapy can cause veins to collapse, it can become very difficult for nurses to find veins. Squeezing a stress ball helps pump blood through veins and can make veins in the arm more visible which can be helpful to get an IV started in the arm.
It may also be beneficial to continue squeezing a stress ball several times a day prior to and during chemotherapy treatment. Veins are made up of muscle and these strengthening exercises will help to build up the muscle in your veins and keep them healthy.
Stress Balls can help ease peripheral neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy is a fact of life for many cancer patients and can make daily life harder to bear because of its impact on extremities. The symptoms are usually felt in the fingers, hands, toes and feet.
Several studies show that effective physical therapy interventions, covering four key categories of range of motion, strengthening, desensitisation and tissue mobilisation can help treat peripheral neuropathy by increasing function and decreasing pain and sensitivity.
According to Karen Hock, PT, MS, CLT-LANA, a physical therapist who specialises in working with cancer patients at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) using a stress ball can help with the strengthening category.
Pinching or squeezing a stress ball will help to build up strength. You can also place the stress ball on a flat surface and press your finders into it and you can do the same exercises with your feet, pushing down on the stress ball with the balls of your feet.
Whilst we’re not trying to claim that a simple foam ball is going to solve all your stress-related problems, we were surprised by the number of issues a stress ball can help with. If you’re supporting a loved one through a cancer diagnosis, a stress ball could make an affordable, thoughtful and incredibly practical gift.