On more than one occasion, I’ve been described as a ball of stress. I get it; I know I’m a quivering jello salad of anxiety, studded with marshmallows of despair. I’m easily overwhelmed, distractible, often flustered, and quick to cry. So, when I’m buried by deadlines, riddled with doubt, or just in tatters from the daily catastrophic unspooling of current events, like many of my fellow balls of stress, I find comfort in my inverse: stress balls.
On my desk, I currently have five squishy stress balls, the soft debris of my quest for comfort, scattered among scrap paper, busted chapsticks, and other random junk. Two are swag from a food technology conference: a bloodshot eyeball, courtesy of an optical equipment company, and a cheerful yellow droplet advertising Omega-9 fatty acids. I bought the other three for myself: an orange, an angel food cake, and my prized possession, a deep purple mangosteen (the “queen of fruits”).
Born in the 1980s, stress balls are notable for their staying power. In fact, the soft foam knick-knacks have only become more popular since they first popped up. While there’s no official census of stress balls, my back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the global population of stress balls somewhere in the hundreds of millions. Despite their popularity, stress balls rarely find themselves at the center of conversation. But in this era of sensory overload and heightened anxiety, stress balls deserve more attention. After all, the history of stress balls is a history of modern-day coping.
In physics and engineering, stress is defined as a system’s response to an external strain. A force exerts pressure on an object — the girder of a bridge, a levee floodwall. If the pressure overwhelms the material’s capacity to maintain its cohesion, then the system fails. The bridge collapses. The levee breaks.
Likewise, since the 1930s, scientists who study human stress have framed it as the interplay between external pressures and internal conditions. Life depends on maintaining homeostasis, both in a physiological and emotional sense. Turbulent circumstances — social or political upheaval, personal tragedy, bankruptcy, hunger — destabilize our inner equilibrium, causing hormonal and neurochemical changes, these researchers discovered. Usually, we adapt and recover. But if the shock is too great, or if our capacity for adaptation is not up to snuff, stress can lead to mental breakdown, chronic disease, and even death.
Early stress science concerned the mind-and-body impact of extraordinary trauma. But, after World War II, stress researchers shifted their focus to studying everyday stress and its toll on health and productivity. The tempo of world events, the pervasiveness of the media, and the rapid pace of cultural and technological change — modernity itself — came to be seen as inherently stressful to people in so-called “advanced” societies, damaging their health and shortening life spans.
Americans first began describing themselves as “stressed out” in the early 1980s. By this point, stress had become “the archetypal disease of civilization, an epidemic caused by the relentless chronic strains of life,” as Mark Jackson, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Exeter, wrote in The Age of Stress. The workplace — the white-collar workplace, in particular — became ground zero for both stress and stress management.
Increasingly, people were looking at stress not as a condition to eradicate, but as something here to stay — an affliction they’d need to cope with. It should come as no surprise, then, that a decade that gave us a nuclear arms race, the AIDS epidemic, and economic turmoil, to name a few anxieties from that era, was a breakthrough time for stress relievers.
The first product to be called a stress ball — named, in fact, the Stressball — was invented in 1988 by Alex Carswell, a 29-year-old TV writer who came up with the idea after an angry phone call from his boss prompted him to hurl a magic marker at a photo of his mother. “It made me feel very good at the moment,” Carswell told the Palm Beach Post 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.”
Carswell’s Stressball was a blue polyurethane ball, approximately the size of a navel orange, kitted out with a microchip and a speaker. It differed from the stress balls of today in (at least) one big way: It was meant to be thrown, not squeezed. When lobbed against the wall, the ball made a sound like shattered glass. At $24.95, it was no bargain — but it was cheaper than therapy.
The Stressball wasn’t the only noisy, aggro stress reliever marketed in the late ’80s. A screaming golf ball and a plastic whiffle bat, which made crashing sounds when swung, appeared in stores around the same time.
“Throw the Rx Freud laughing ball instead of your cat to relieve stress,” suggested a 1989 advertisement for a ball that cackled maniacally. There was also the O-No Worry Pillow, which exhaled a litany of grievances when squeezed: “Money. My boss. My mother-in-law. Oh, no. The tax man. Bills. Bills. Bills. Oh, No. The stock market. Oh worry, worry, worry.” And the Wham-It, a desk-sized punching bag that would wobble up to take another hit, was another big seller, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Squawking, petulant, and inviting abuse, these devices soothed nerves by allowing their users to release pent-up aggression and rage harmlessly, as a gag. No wonder they showed up in holiday gift guides for harried executives. These were for people who were allowed to be as mad as hell, and who could pretend like they weren’t going to take it anymore.
But, of course, you could only throw your Stressball against the wall if you had a wall in the first place. What about the legions of cubicle-dwellers and service workers who had to manage their anxieties as quiet desperation? Well, they could grip a number of soundless squeezables that also emerged in the late ’80s: There was the Stress X, a fleshy, Yoda-like latex head filled with cornstarch. And the ticklish, psychedelic Koosh. And the still-classic Martian Popping Thing – also called Bug-Out Bob or Panic Pete — a sort of pink latex polyp that extrudes its beady red eyes and blue ears in a silent scream when you grip its midsection. Some of these products were just fads; others stuck around. Either way, it was this breed of noiseless, undramatic squishable, rather than the executive’s screaming rage ball, that would define the future of the category.
Today, it’s probably fair to say that most people don’t accumulate heaps of stress balls deliberately. The multiplication of stress balls in our present-day lives has more to do with the proliferation of free swag. When you sign up for a new bank account, visit the dentist, do a fun run, or attend a convention, you might very well come home with a stress ball bearing the logo of some company, product, or service. According to the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI), a trade organization serving the $23.6 billion promotional products industry, stress balls are one of the most popular swag items.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when soft, squishy stress balls became a common promotional ploy. At least one company, Ariel Premium Supply, based in St. Louis, began selling them in the early 1990s. (In 2014, Ariel sold over 15 million stress balls — more than 41,000 a day.) And they’ve only become more popular. Searches for stress relievers on ASI’s business-to-business platform have increased by more than 50 percent since 2013, spiking dramatically in September 2016 — just ahead of the US presidential election — and continuing to rise since then.
Since the early 1990s, one substance has reigned supreme in the stress-ball universe: soft, resilient, squishy polyurethane. Polyurethane is a versatile material first developed in 1937 as a substitute for rubber. You can find polyurethane in products including insulation, roller-skate wheels, spandex, surfboards, and memory-foam mattresses. “Think about it like a cake mix,” explained Lee Salamone, senior director at the American Chemistry Council’s Center for the Polyurethanes Industry. Vary the chemical ingredients, and you get different qualities: stretchy or cushiony, dense or airy.
To make a stress ball, this cake mix — called “integral skin closed-cell polyurethane foam” — is injected into custom molds that close like clam shells. The molds are baked in a giant industrial oven, where the liquid foam expands and hardens. Workers at stress-ball factories, mostly located in mainland China, finish them off by hand, trimming the rinds, patching any holes, and airbrushing details.
Promotional supply companies offer stress balls in a dazzling variety of shapes. A brand logo can be emblazoned on a squishy port-a-potty or an ATM machine, a burrito or a soybean, to name a few. Companies can also choose from a grisly menagerie of foam body parts, including disembodied ears, kidneys, left feet, brains in every color of the rainbow, and beige, bisected buttocks.
While surveying the contemporary stress-ball landscape, I amused myself trying to figure out what, if anything, hasn’t yet been made into a stress ball. I found plenty of sperm, but no uterus. There are several breast stress balls (all equally creepy) and a prostate stress ball (resembling a slice of dragon fruit), but I couldn’t find balls in stress-ball form, anywhere. There was a subway car and a school bus, but alas, no funicular. “Gracias” and “Thank You,” but no “Merci” or “Danke Schoen.”
Kelsey Brown, a communications specialist at Quality Logo Products, an Illinois promotional products company that offers more than 1,500 different stress balls, explained that there’s a potential customer for every shape. “What may seem strange to you or I is a niche for a local business,” she said. “An ear makes perfect sense for an audiology clinic.” For Christopher Duffy, marketing director at Ariel Premium Supply, the secret of stress balls’ success is their universality. “They’re fun, they’re neutral — age-neutral, gender-neutral, culturally neutral. Who doesn’t love a stress ball?”
Good question. No matter who you are or where you come from, stress balls feel good. Really, what’s not to love? But, affection aside, does squeezing them do us any good?
Well, the act of squeezing something can have therapeutic benefits, and squeezable balls are frequently used in physical therapy and rehabilitation clinics. Mark Pahlow, founder and owner of the Archie McPhee company, the novelty emporium that brought the Martian Popping Thing to the US in 1985, told me that he received letters from physical therapists and doctors vouching for the odd little toy’s ability to “totally shut down mental illness cases.” He wrote: “Patients that were almost comatose reacted when one eye bugged out, then another.” More recently, a small 2015 study showed that stress balls decreased anxiety and increased feelings of well-being among surgical patients.
And, for those of us who turn to stress balls to cope with life’s persistent hassles, a growing body of research suggests that doodling, fidgeting, and other forms of fiddling around with stuff, can help people with ADHD and other attention disorders stay focused and regulate fluctuating emotions.
For the past five years, engineers Katherine Isbister and Michael Karlesky have worked to develop fidget tools that can enhance productivity and creativity in workspaces dominated by digital interfaces. As part of their research, they’ve crowd-sourced a catalog of fidget-widgets. Fidgets, they’ve found, seem to offer different benefits depending on their tactile characteristics.
“Fidgets that soothe or calm may be more smooth or squeezable,” Isbister told me, “whereas fidgets people use to stay alert may have more clickable, sharp, or pokey characteristics.”
There’s still no scientific consensus about why gripping a stress ball, or twiddling another type of fidget, makes some people feel calmer, more focused, and less distracted. (Some neuroscientists believe it has to do with the brain’s “default mode network,” the ongoing background activity fizzing through our neuronal circuitry.) There’s also no definitive, double-blind study proving that stress balls actually reduce stress or increase joy. As to whether stress balls are useless or helpful, you’ll just have to decide for yourself. .
Soft resilient polyurethane has recently spread beyond the swag bag. The past few years have seen the rise of “squishies”among kids, tweens, and aficionados of twee delights. Squishies, sold at toy stores and traded all over the internet, are produced to look like pastel confections, imaginary foodstuffs, and kawaii critters, sometimes smelling faintly of anime strawberries or dream tangerines.
I spoke with Genevieve Eisner, 9, a Brooklyn fourth-grader and self-described squishy early-adopter, who was introduced to the squishy lifestyle by her cousin Rosie. “I kind of started the squishy thing at my school,” she told me. Genevieve currently has a stable of sixteen squishies, including a birthday cake-unicorn chimera, a super kawaii hamburger cat, a loaf of bread, and a mango. But she thinks it’s a mistake to focus too much on appearance. During our conversation, Genevieve guided me through a blind evaluation of her squishy collection, having me judge them, pair by pair, with my eyes closed, until I declared my favorite. The one that feels the best in your hand might not be the prettiest one. The loaf of bread triumphed over the sparkly unicorn cake.
We both agreed: The most satisfying squishies are large, soft, and slow-rising. While many swag-quality stress balls bounce back to shape right away, these luxe squishies take their sweet time. Duffy, of Ariel Premium Supply, agrees that slow-rising, slow-release stress balls are the future of the category. (The company recently introduced a line of slow-rising stress balls, dubbing them “Serenity Squishies.”)
If you’re stuck with one of those tough, fast-rising stress balls, though, don’t stress. There are dozens of Youtube tutorials on the fine art of stress-ball modification. By carving out the center of a stress ball and filling it with homemade slime, you can convert your subpar swag item into a wonderfully goopy, slow-response hybrid. (You can also try stashing it in the freezer for 20 minutes to fake a slow-rising effect; this only kind of works.)
Stress balls originated as humble coping objects — soft little somethings to help people survive a new, unsettling reality. And now that we spend the better part of our days tapping and swiping at hard, unyielding surfaces, it makes sense that we’d clutter the margins of our workspaces with the opposite — polyurethane effigies of resilience, if you will. But we don’t have to resign ourselves to accepting the conditions and social arrangements that leave us feeling so stressed out, so much of the time. We can clutch our stress balls, and have a less stressful world, too.
Brown, of Quality Logo Products, told me that two of their top-selling stress-ball shapes are the brain and the heart. This has a certain poetic logic. We can sit at our desks, squeezing and squeezing our exhausted brains, wringing out our achy hearts, and watch them bounce back — and so will we, we hope. A stress ball is the external correlative of interior calm, a little desk idol to the goddess of shaking it off.
This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with a squish.