In today’s fast-paced and stressful world, many people struggle with anxiety, ADHD, autism, and other mental health conditions that make it difficult to focus or sit still. A growing body of research suggests that fidget toys – small, tactile objects designed to be manipulated with the hands – can provide a surprisingly effective way to manage these challenges.
The use of fidget toys and other sensory tools dates back decades as a strategy in occupational therapy settings. More recently, these unassuming gadgets have exploded in popularity, both among those with diagnosed conditions as well as the general public. Walk down the office supply aisle in any big box store and you’ll likely encounter an array of spinners, clickers, squishy stress balls, tangles, and other fidgets marketed as aids for concentration and calm.
But do these pocket-sized toys really help with anxiety, attention, and overall mental health? Let’s explore what experts and users say.
How Fidget Toys Can Help Mental Health
Fidget toys are thought to work by providing low-level sensory stimulation that can serve as a distraction from stressors and anxious thoughts. The act of fidgeting gives restless hands something to do, while the repetitive motions involved may soothe the nervous system. This can allow the user to pay better attention during tasks that require concentration and focus.
For those with anxiety, research has found that worry beads and other fidgets help reduce symptoms when used during stressful situations. For people on the autism spectrum, fidget toys provide an outlet for the need many have for constant tactile input. The toys give their hands something acceptable to keep occupied with, rather than falling back on behaviors like hand flapping that may be stigmatized.
Those with ADHD often benefit from fidget toys too. Having an object to channel excess energy towards allows the ADHD brain to focus less on the need to move and more on the task at hand. Therapists recommend allowing children with ADHD to have a fidget toy readily accessible in the classroom. For adults, keeping a fidget on their work desk can be similarly beneficial for boosting concentration.
Not all fidgets are created equal, of course. Experts suggest choosing toys that provide a satisfying sensory experience without proving overly distracting in their own right. Simple, quiet fidgets that can be manipulated in one hand without looking are often best for minimizing disruption in school and workplace settings.
First-Hand Accounts of Fidget Toy Benefits
Beyond experts, ordinary fidget toy users have plenty of positive experiences that speak to the toys’ mental health benefits as well:
Sara, who has generalized anxiety disorder, keeps an array of fidgets in her purse and desk that she says “work wonders” when her mind starts racing. Her go-to fidget is a tangle – a collection of interlinked plastic pieces that can be endlessly shaped, connected, and maneuvered silently with one hand. She says having something for her hands to play with discreetly helps her stay present in anxious moments rather than being overwhelmed by worrying thoughts.
Nick struggled with ADHD symptoms that made school miserable until a guidance counselor suggested a fidget toy. Now equipped with a small spinner he can turn endlessly during class, he’s able to listen and take notes without the urge to constantly tap his pencil or get out of his seat. He says the spinner makes it easier to pay attention without resorting to disruptive behaviors to satisfy his hyperactive impulses.
Maria’s autistic son used to flap his hands constantly, even when it drew negative reactions from peers. After discovering fidget cubes, he now has an outlet for his sensory needs that’s more subtle. Maria says the cubes have “worked wonders” for helping her son self-regulate and cope when he feels overwhelmed. He is bullied less and able to focus more in class now that his hands can occupy themselves quietly with the cube.
While not everyone responds positively to fidget toys, these anecdotes demonstrate they can make a big quality of life difference for some people with anxiety, autism, ADHD and related conditions.
Choosing the Right Fidget Toy
There are countless fidget toys on the market today, from simple worry stones and silicone finger loops to more complex puzzles and moving parts. With so many options available, choosing the right one takes some experimentation. Here are some dos and don’ts those new to fidget toys should keep in mind:
DO opt for quiet toys if using your fidget in a classroom or office. Things that click, squeak or rattle will prove distracting to others. Good quiet options include bendy toys, tangles, and cubes.
DON’T get a fidget that’s overly absorbing. Something with intricate parts or mesmerizing motion can be counterproductive by diverting your attention too much from the task at hand.
DO consider your own sensory preferences. If you like the feeling of soft textures, try a squishy stress ball. If you prefer things that glide smoothly, a rotating orb may suit you. Figure out what types of tactile motions appeal most.
DON’T bother with toys too large to manipulate with one hand. You want something that leaves the other hand free for writing, typing or whatever your main activity may be.
DO look for fidgets with a shape and texture you find pleasing. Touches like bumps, indentations and swirling patterns can enhance the sensory experience.
DON’T feel you have to limit yourself to one fidget toy. Having a variety on hand allows you to switch up sensations to prevent boredom.
Following these guidelines can help you select the fidget toys best tailored for your needs. It may take some trial and error, but the right ones can make a substantive difference in helping you or your child manage anxiety and attention challenges. With the wide selection available today, there’s sure to be some winners if you take the time to hunt for them.
While no “cure all,” fidget toys show real promise as tools to aid focus, calm, and overall mental health in both clinical and everyday contexts for people prone to anxiety and distractibility. They provide a discreet, socially acceptable outlet for restless hands and minds, one that experts encourage making readily available in settings where concentration and composure matter most. If you or a loved one struggles with attention, anxiety, autism or related issues, give fidget toys a try. With some experimentation, you’re likely to discover at least a few that feel like they were made specially to soothe your stresses.