You’ve probably seen some those semi-soft foam balls adorning virtually every corporate office, enticing people to release tension by squeezing them between their fingers. But do these ridiculous balls actually help people decompress? Should you regularly use them or is it a better idea to blow off some steam by throwing stress balls out the window?

From work to school to romantic relationships, there’s no shortage of challenges in our lives. Often, this creates an internal conflict that manifests itself as stress. When left unchecked, stress will not only take its toll on our emotional and mental health but also on our physical well-being.

Chronic stress can lead to headaches, an upset stomach, sleep problems, and fatigue. If left unchecked, stress can contribute to far more serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

One of the symptoms of stress is muscle tension. We literally clench our body’s muscles when feeling psychologically stressed, prompted by a flood of hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Essentially, these chemicals prime the body for “fight or flight”. However, it’s not always an option to fight your boss or run away from work — this is where the ubiquitous stress ball might come in handy.

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Speaking to the Huffington Post, David Posen, a stress expert and author of Is Work Killing You?: A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress,” says that at least some of that stress energy can be channeled towards a physical object. Stress balls can work really well, Posen says, because they prompt you to squeeze and release, leaving you less tense.

America’s favorite squeezable knick-knack has come a long way since it was invented in the 1980s by Alex Carswell, a 29-year-old TV writer who came up with the idea after an angry phone call with his boss compelled him to throw a magic marker at a framed photo of his mother. “It made me feel very good at the moment,” Carswell said later that year, “but I also had a broken picture of my mother and her dog I had to get reframed, and a mess to clean up.” Today, hundreds of millions of foam balls are being manufactured all over the world. But do they actually do anything?

In 2006, researchers found that stress balls can improve the focus and attention spans of sixth-graders. Another study found that fidgeting with objects — squeezing a stress ball or twirling a pen, for instance — can help boost productivity by giving the mind a break, making it easier to pay attention to the task upon returning to it. According to MIT researchers, fidgeting objects that soothe or calm have to be smooth or squeezable, whereas fidgets meant to make people alert are generally clickable, sharp, or pokey. Yet another study found that stress balls helped relieve patients’ anxiety during surgery.

However, the only study that specifically researched the effectiveness of stress balls in reducing the physiological symptoms of stress found that they don’t do much. The researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that stress balls are not effective in reducing heart rate, blood pressure, or skin conductance following an episode of induced acute stress in college-aged
individuals. The sample size was rather small, though, and involved only 30 students. Also, in light of its productivity-enhancing and anxiety-relieving properties, stress balls may be worth your time.

Bear in mind that if you’re chronically stressed, no amount of squishy foam balls or teddy bears will help you in the long-run. To release the physical and emotional tension in the body from ongoing stress, doctors recommend exercising, dancing, venting with friends, and — why not — letting it all out by crying or shouting.