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Exam time: stress-relieving gadgets

Stress relieving toys - such as fidget spinners, stress balls, and cubes - are a popular way to help cope with stress and anxiety, and they are never more popular than during exam time.

But are these gadgets just a fad, or is there any point to them? We explore the most popular stress-busting tools and the science behind them.

In 2022, 80% of headteachers reported that their students felt more stressed about exams than in previous pre-pandemic years1. With concerns around children's mental wellbeing on the rise, we ask if stress-relieving tools are a good investment around exam season.

1. Fidget spinners

Many fidget spinner manufacturers claim the gadget relieves ADHD, autism and anxiety2. There is some research that fidgeting - for example, jiggling legs - can help children with ADHD to concentrate. Some small scientific studies have also found fidget spinners to help anxiety3, but this research is limited and there remains a lack of strong scientific evidence around these gadgets - and little to no studies on their use during exams.

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2. Traditional stress balls

Stress balls are designed to help relieve tension and stress - the idea is that when you tighten and then release your fist, it helps you let go of the angst too. It's thought that strengthening your nerves and muscles through stress ball squeezing may benefit your nervous system, controlling the release of stress hormones. However, study results are mixed - some report improvements in stress, while others do not4.

When it comes to their use in education, there is evidence that stress balls can help university students feel less nervous5. These tools may even help young people in exams in other ways - by improving their ability to focus on the task at hand6.

3. Wire head massagers

According to advocates, a wire-based head massager can help relax muscles in your neck that tense up when you're stressed. There may not be many studies on head massager gadgets, but head massage is an ancient ayurveda-based technique that's proven to relieve anxiety7. Head massage also stimulates your nerve endings and increases blood flow, which not only helps to reduce stress hormone levels, but has been found to lower blood pressure and heart rate8. Still, a head massager isn't a subtle tool and students may prefer to use during private study time than in an exam room.

4. Therapy putty

Much like stress balls, putty toys, sometimes known as silly putty or thinking putty, may help alleviate mental stress through the physical act of squeezing, stretching, and releasing. The putty is designed to resist and reform with each stretch, which many claim helps soothe and distract from anxious thoughts. Some claim putty also helps you process your thoughts while you play - but the majority of evidence is anecdotal, and there's little to no scientific evidence on putty for student stress.

5. Stress relief apps for young people

Mobile apps designed to reduce stress are becoming increasingly popular and there are several on the market, from mindfulness meditation apps to therapy apps. The trouble is, not all of these apps are designed with a young person's attention span in mind. In contrast, Recolor is an anti-stress colouring-in app that champions interaction, activity and fun as a means of stress relief. If your child needs to be distracted by something relaxing and creative during exam season, this app is a great option.

6. Mindfulness remotes

For children and young adults navigating exam anxiety, interactive electronic tools are on the rise. According to a study by Brunel University, 86% of children who used Stix Mindfulness Remotes felt happier and less stressed after four weeks9. These remotes offer enjoyable activities that are especially useful for younger children who need stress-relief and entertainment packaged as one.

While all these gadgets may be a fun distraction, they're no substitute for medical help if you have anxiety. Finding a solution that helps you relax and manage your feelings is an important factor in relieving anxiety, so talk to your GP if you're struggling.

Further reading

  1. Association of School and College Leaders: Student anxiety has emerged as the biggest challenge of exams season.
  2. NPR: Whirring, Purring fidget spinners provide entertainment, not ADHD help.
  3. Aditya et al:Comparison of effectiveness of three distraction techniques to allay dental anxiety during inferior alveolar nerve block in children: A randomized controlled clinical trial.
  4. Gezginci et al: Comparison of two different distraction methods affecting the level of pain and anxiety during extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy: A randomized controlled trial.
  5. Srivarsan et al: An evaluation on use of stress ball exercise on stress management among student population.
  6. Stalvey and Brasell: Using stress balls to focus the attention of sixth graders.
  7. Murota et al: Physical and psychological effects of head treatment in the supine position using specialised Ayurveda-based techniques.
  8. Kim et al: The effect of a scalp massage on stress hormone, blood pressure, and heart rate of healthy female.
    Stix Mindfulness: Independent study statistics.
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