How to Calm Your COVID Stress

By Pamela Willsey, LICSW, BCD, PCC

A recent trend I’ve been seeing with several of my clients is stress from a mandated quarantine from a recent COVID exposure or positive test result. While being thankful to experience mild to zero symptoms, their thoughts often shift from gratitude for having and surviving COVID to “oh no – now I have five days of a solitary quarantine.” For some of us, a forced quarantine is a respite from reality; a chance to slow down and take a break. But for so many of us, my teen and twenty-something clients especially, a forced five day quarantine seems nearly impossible after the past two years of the pandemic. Wrapping their brains around being alone and out of their normal routine they have just recently reentered has created a snowball effect of challenging thoughts and emotions for an already traumatized age group. 


“SOS” is widely used as a designation for distress in society. In humans, uncertainty causes distress for the brain. The brain recognizes ambiguity and uncertainty as stressors and expends additional energy to think about all of the possible outcomes of a situation. Combine uncertainty with the emotional response to a perceived threat and it creates anxiety.

With the current COVID pandemic and the various challenges associated with learning to live with the threat of contracting or being exposed to the virus, many people are dealing with increased levels of stress, uncertainty, and anxiety. The SOS signal your brain is sending you can be turned into valuable emotional data. For instance, a useful tool I’ve been building with clients for the past ten years is the SOS List. When my clients feel anxious, uncertain, or extreme discomfort, I ask them to refer to their SOS list. It’s a list they’ve created of helpful and known tricks to ease their minds and come back to center. During this omicron surge, we’ve created an SOS 2.0 for my clients who are facing a solitary quarantine. (Note that the previously recommended ten day quarantine was much more challenging to some clients than the updated five days). 

Finding Calm

Managing your mind during a challenging situation is something I work on with all of my clients. Releasing their stress, finding their calm, and coming back to center their focus on what they want to devote their energy to as a way of managing their minds. In order to do that, they must also recognize what is their reality, accept that, and move forward in order to focus on controlling the controllables. Your controllables are anything you can impart change. For example, may not be able to control whether you are exposed or contract the virus. However, you do have control over how you use your time while in quarantine. One of the phrases I often use to highlight this is, “when I find that my mind is fly fishing for phantoms, I ask myself where are my feet right now.”

Consider using this “bonus” time to your advantage. Here’s how to create your SOS List to use in quarantine or any other time you want to alleviate your stress and find your calm.

  1. First explore how you are currently feeling about the news that you’ll need to quarantine after an exposure or positive test result.
  2. Lean into any feelings that you may have and get curious about why you feel the way that you currently feel.
  3. Get curious about what you are thinking about what it means to quarantine. (Remember, your feelings are created by your thoughts, not the situation that you find yourself in.)
  4. What do you anticipate being most challenging about the time that you will be quarantining? Why?
  5. How would you rather feel about this time that you will be isolated from others? (Hint, accepting or neutral may be the best that you can expect to feel.)
  6. What can you choose to think on purpose that will enable you to feel the way that you want to feel only after you have leaned into and embraced your initial feelings?
  7. Ask yourself, ”What things can I do that have meaning to me that I would ordinarily not have the time or incentive to do?”

Your SOS

After your personal reflection, jot down several activities in an easily accessible list. These activities may be as simple as reading or listening to a podcast, or more involved like closet organization or art creation. Accessibility is key here; I always recommend putting an SOS list on your phone. As soon as you recognize your stress and anxious feelings, you can access your list immediately. Always trust your instinct when creating your SOS List – you know yourself best and what you will and won’t do. Here are some examples to get your list started.

How to Calm your covid stress with an SOS List
Save this list to create your own SOS List.

COVID Quarantine SOS List:

  • Watch a show/series/movie that I’ve been meaning to watch
  • Move my body in some way that I am able to do based on how I’m feeling physically
  • Take a walk
  • Do some form of exercise using an app
  • Do breathwork
  • Listen to a meditation app
  • Listen to a podcast
  • Write in a journal
  • Paint nails
  • Connect virtually with friends and family
  • Connect with someone that you might not normally think to connect with (maybe your grandma/grandpa, aunt/uncle, or cousin?)
  • Listen to music
  • Make a new playlist
  • Get ahead of assigned school work, test prep, college application process
  • Research an interesting topic
  • See how many new books you can read
  • Clean and/or organize room 

Consider using this time to get really curious about who you want to be right now and what is yours to do. Remain curious about any feelings that arise during these uncertain times. Now is the perfect time to work with a life coach who can help you strengthen the connections to yourself and others in your world. If you know a teen or a college-aged young woman who could use some guidance and support, visit my website for more information and let’s connect.

As posted on Psychology Today.

Leave a Reply