Fidget toys come in various forms — such as cubes, spinners, and balls — and they are popular among those who find it difficult to stay still. Although there is a lack of large-scale scientific evidence confirming their effectiveness, these toys are a popular way to counter stress and anxiety.

Fidget toys have gained traction in recent years as an outlet for restlessness. Specifically, they may help those with anxiety who experience feelings of being pent-up or jumpy.

If someone has generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), they feel ongoing worry and dread. Some people may feel on edge or restless, and these emotions may interfere with their daily activities, such as work or school. Fidget toys may help ease these feelings of anxiety for some people.

However, more conclusive research is still necessary to determine whether or not fidget toys work for anxiety.

This article discusses the effectiveness of fidget toys for anxiety, types, how they work, and some other treatment options.

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Image by Chris Winsor/Getty Images

Over the past few years, a growing body of research has studied the effects of fidget toys for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, autism, and other conditions affecting learning and concentration.

Although conclusions in these fields remain unconfirmed, some evidence suggests that fidget toys may influence people’s fine motor control skills, which are involved in making small, precise movements.

In a 2018 study, researchers recruited 81 individuals to measure the efficacy of fidget toys on their motor control skills.

They divided the participants into a control group, a sham group that held a fidget spinner, and an experimental group that could rotate the spinner. Each person traced a spiral on a graphic tablet before and after the trial. They had to avoid using the support of their body or anything other than direct pen-to-tablet contact.

Those in the experimental and sham groups showed improvement, which was more marked in the experimental group. However, the researchers could only assess this positive impact in the short term.

The researchers noted that fidgeting in most settings stems from stress and that fidgeting relieves this stress. This could indicate that fidget toys may play a role in anxiety treatment.

Some people find that moving, spinning, or handling an object can help soothe or calm them. For example, those with a form of anxiety called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) find comfort in repetitive actions, such as twirling their hair or picking their cuticles. They use these repetitive behaviors to neutralize or counteract their obsessions and anxieties.

However, although this response can provide immediate relief, it may not help with some of the symptoms of anxiety in the mid and long term. For example, exposure therapy is a common treatment for OCD that aims to expose a person to a situation that causes anxiety. This helps them learn to confront the source of anxiety and stop engaging in compulsive behaviors.

For some people, fidgeting may engage and stimulate parts of the brain involved in attention. Repetitive movements can act as displacement behaviors to relieve stress. Although this may affect people differently, some research has suggested that fidgeting provides more relief for men in high pressure situations.

The idea with spinners, cubes, and other fidget toys is that they not only alleviate stress but may also improve concentration. However, one 2018 study involving 60 children with ADHD demonstrated the opposite effect. The researchers found that fidget spinners reduced activity, distracted children, and caused them to pay less attention to their surroundings.

This may be due to the fact that the spinner itself was a distraction, as it requires voluntary movement and intentional fidgeting. For example, other research has indicated that unintentional fidgeting may instead help with attention. Currently, there is little evidence to suggest that fidget toys have a beneficial effect on attention.

In general, studies demonstrating whether or not fidget spinners help with anxiety are lacking, so more research is necessary.

There are various fidget toys available for people with anxiety. Types include:

  • squeezable stress balls
  • fidget spinners
  • playdough or putty
  • chewable pendants or straws
  • sensory diffusers
  • six-sided fidget cubes

People can also buy fidget toys to target each of the five senses. These include olfactory, oral, and tactile toys.

There are dozens of fidget toy options that marketers claim can reduce anxiety and improve concentration. Despite this, no evidence has conclusively shown that these toys work for everyone.

People with anxiety should discuss options with a doctor or therapist to find out which mediums could work for them.

Authors and doctors have described anxiety since the dawn of modern psychiatry in the late 18th century. Since then, psychiatrists and therapists have worked with people experiencing many types of anxiety, each requiring different treatment approaches.

Fidget spinners are new to the treatment scene, and research has not yet proven their effectiveness. Instead, doctors typically use the following approaches to address anxiety:

  • improving stress management, such as taking time away from work
  • trying deep breathing and meditation
  • making dietary and lifestyle changes, such as balanced nutrition, sleep, and exercise
  • trying mindfulness and grounding techniques
  • seeking counseling
  • taking antidepressants or other medications

The best place to start when it comes to pinpointing proper treatment is to speak with a doctor. If someone can manage their symptoms with therapies such as counseling or psychotherapy, they may not need medication.

Fidget toys are gaining popularity as a way for some people to relieve the restlessness associated with anxiety.

However, there is not much evidence to support their effectiveness for this purpose. Although they may provide a momentary distraction from symptoms, they are unlikely to help treat anxiety and appear to be less effective than other options, such as therapy.