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Stress balls have long been the corporate toy of choice, with companies branding them and giving them away as promotional gifts.

But what were stress balls originally developed for? What types of stress ball are there? And do they actually work? We take a closer look.

What is a stress ball? And where did they come from?

Branded stress balls are now big business - a simple web search will bring up hundreds of companies dedicated to putting companies’ logos on these stress relieving toys.

One of the strangest (not to mention ironic) stress ball anecdotes is that during the 2008 financial crash, the US corporation Lehman Brothers had over 10,000 stress balls listed among their assets1!

The modern stress ball was developed by TV writer Alex Carswell, who threw a pen in his office in frustration.

From there, he came up with the idea that it would be great for office workers to have a squishy ball to hand that could be tossed around safely2!

Carswell’s light-bulb moment was at the height of 1980s capitalism mania and the era of “yuppie” culture.

But relaxing toys, including stress relief balls, have been around for centuries; long before the era of the modern executive.

Since Carswell’s product hit the market, the squishy stress toys have gone through quite the evolution.

Thanks to medical research, stress balls have a variety of uses for those with hand mobility issues.

But they form part of the history of stress toys and stress aids that range from ancient China via the latest craze for ‘squishies’ for school kids, that drive teachers wild (think finger skateboards or fidget spinners!) through the 2020 boom in weighted blankets.

A very short history of stress toys

In an article on the “anxiety economy”, The Guardian points out that the idea of keeping one’s hands busy to help with relaxation or focus is nothing new3.

In ancient China, walnuts or stones were used to give hands something to do.

The Chinese evidently found the practice of fiddling so comforting that they developed Baoding balls (that make a tinkling sound as they move) during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)4.

Over the years, there have been many fidget toys, stress toys and desk toys to come along.

These range from the classic Newton’s Cradle to fidget jewellery5. But squeeze balls came into their own with the invention of polyurethane in the 1930s6. This paved the way for the Nerf company to make soft toy balls in the 1960s7, which eventually came to be marketed as squishy stress balls.

Types of stress ball

Nowadays, there are various types of stress ball.

Some may not even be ball-shaped at all: there are a ton of custom forms that the foam can be moulded into.

The most common types – especially when it comes to corporate freebies – are foam stress balls, but there are others made from gel, sillicone, “water beads” and even the store-cupboard staple corn flour!

So, do stress balls actually work?

The short answer? Depends what you are looking for.

If you are looking for a cure to serious or chronic stress, then these simple toys are not going to be a magic bullet.

However, stress experts say that any release of energy is helpful in order to release some of the built up adrenaline that comes from the stress response, which can make the body tense8.

Stress balls for physiotherapy

Stress balls are also useful tools for physiotherapy. Medical professionals have found they can be a great and simple tool to increase hand mobility and stiff joints.

Playing with the balls can also be good for circulation and blood flow 9 .

This could be for sufferers of arthritis, hand surgery, carpal tunnel syndrome, or sports-related injuries.

There are various exercises you can do with the stress balls, including trying different grips, rolls and presses10. Furthermore, stress balls are great for fidgeters, as well as anyone who has trouble focusing11.

Many of them are targeted specifically at children with problem behaviours and learning difficulties for this reason.

Last updated: 28th October 2020