Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Calm Your COVID Stress

Try this one tip to bring yourself back to center.

Key points

  • The Omicron variant is bringing additional stress with mandated quarantines.
  • Relieving stress can be managed with mindful preparation.
  • Creating an SOS List can help people of all ages cope with tension and anxious feelings.

A recent trend I’ve been seeing with several clients is mandated quarantine because of a recent COVID exposure or positive test result. While being thankful to experience mild or 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, a chance to slow down and take a break. But for many—especially my teen and 20-something clients—a forced five-day quarantine seems nearly impossible after the past two years. Wrapping their brains around being alone and back out of the normal routine they just recently reentered has created a snowball effect of challenging thoughts and emotions for an already traumatized group.


“SOS” is widely used as a designation for distress. 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 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 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 10 years is the "SOS List." When my clients feel anxious, uncertain, or extreme discomfort, I ask them to refer to 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 (noting that the previously recommended 10-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 their reality is, accept that, and move forward in order to focus on controlling their "controllables."

Controllables are anything to which you can impart change. For example, you may or may not be able to control whether you are exposed to or contract the virus. However, you do have control over how you use your time while in quarantine.

One phrase 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 are some helpful ways to think about how to create your SOS List to use in COVID quarantine or any other time you want to find your calm.

  1. First, explore how you are currently feeling about the news that you'll need to quarantine after 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?"
 Pamela Willsey
Here's an example of an SOS List you can create and keep readily available on your phone.
Source: Pamela Willsey

After your personal reflection, jot down several activities in an easily accessible list. These activities may be simple, like 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, so you can see it almost 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.

  • Watch a movie or TV show 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.
  • Try 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, the college application process.
  • Research something that you've always been interested in learning more about.
  • See how many new books you can read.
  • Clean and/or organize a room.