Pandemic or no, we are an anxious species. “Humans are just not built to sit still all day long and use only our heads,” says Katherine Isbister, Ph.D., research director of the Social Emotional Technology Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz. But sit we must — in class, at work, while waiting for our latte in the morning. And while we do, our hands instinctively look for something to do. From prayer beads to stress balls, spinner rings to pop its, having a fidget aid — something to reflexively spin, squeeze, and push — is only natural. But why? And, more importantly, is there a benefit here? Do these objects really relieve stress, calm the mind, and relax us? Or is this all just squeezable, pokable, spinnable snake oil?
According to Isbister, an actual expert in this area (yes, we found one!), fidgeting is something people have done for centuries to calm themselves down or focus. Consider prayer beads or meditation beads, which people fondle or rotate in their hands. “I think of those as old fidgeting technologies,” says Isbister. “So, there is some longtime human wisdom in this. Spinner rings [or Pop Its] may just be the latest manifestation of a movable object that calms the mind.”
Isbister thinks there is an evolutionary component to why we fidget in the first place. “Our ancestors were always walking around, using their hands and changing their posture,” says Isbister. “I think fidgeting is an adaptation to the unnatural level of sitting still we have to do for work or school.”
Sure, but does all this fidgeting do anything for us, or is it just a useless evolutionary holdover — like our appendix or road rage? In other words, can an object actually work to quell stress? “That is the $20 million question,” Isbister says. “When we get people to self-report, they’ll often say that fidgeting with different objects is something they believe helps them calm down or focus. So based on that, the short answer is yes — if people feel they are being calmed by fiddling with a ring, then spinner rings probably do work.”
The long answer, however, is there just aren’t enough hard data to know for sure. To prove that spinner rings and other fidgeting devices actually work against anxiety (or that they don’t), Isbister says we need in-depth neuroimaging studies to see what’s happening inside the brain. Fortunately, she just received grant money to conduct such research, so we may have these answers in the near future.
“If you think a spinner ring helps reduce stress in the short term so you can persist with whatever you’re doing, great. But then it’s always worth digging deeper to unpack the root cause of your anxiety.”
For now, though, the best evidence comes from studies that ask participants to gauge their stress levels before and after fidgeting, which Isbister has done. “From talking to people, we’ve noticed a few patterns,” she says. “They say that repetitive motions, such as spinning something around, are soothing. Also, an object that is smooth, like a ring, feels good to the hand and feels good to move around. People describe it as something to put their attention onto that brings them into the present moment and out of their head.” This is very similar to breathing exercises done for anxiety, she adds, in that you bring yourself into your body and into the present moment.
There’s also a distraction element to fidgeting, in that it simply takes your mind off of something more stressful. But it’s more than just that. “You could distract yourself with just about anything… [like] by worrying about something else,” Isbister says. “So, yes, fidget rings do fit into that big bucket of distractions, but they are also calming you physiologically.”
Considering all that, Isbister believes spinner rings are generally a healthy means of easing anxiety. Plus, they often look like regular rings. The action can be subtle — and silent, unlike feverishly clicking a pen, which will drive everyone around you bonkers.
Still, while a spinner ring may help, it’ll never be an anxiety cure-all. “To expect a monumental change after using one would be unwise,” Isbister says. “Emotions like anxiety signal to us that there’s something out of whack that we need to attend to. If you think a spinner ring helps reduce stress in the short term so you can persist with whatever you’re doing, great. But then it’s always worth digging deeper to unpack the root cause of your anxiety.”