How to Stress Less While Social Distancing

By Cristina Schreil

Anyone else stressing out even though they’re just staying home and baking all day? Just me?  

For anyone who’s been wondering why, in this new age of sweatpants, they can’t seem to manage their anxiety, know you’re not alone. According to a survey of 1,092 American adults conducted by Axios and Ipsos in March 2020, “22% said their mental health had taken a hit and 29% said their emotional well-being had gotten worse” because of the coronavirus outbreak. Great.

Prioritizing self-care can feel like an uphill battle in the chillest, least pandemic-y, least toilet-paper-panicky of times. And now, with much of the world isolating, we’re suddenly cut off from many things that brought us joy: socializing with friends and family, going out to restaurants, community gatherings, sports — and any sense of normalcy. The coping mechanisms we had before are put on pause.

Connections with other people often make us feel better (and no, The Office characters aren’t exactly what I mean.) The fancy term for this is co-regulation, according to Dr. Justine Grosso, PsyD., a therapist in Durham, NC. Yet, with those options gone, what are we supposed to do? (Other than keep burning cookies while cursing?) Thankfully, you are already a source of strength. This is a great time to self-soothe, or self-regulate, Dr. Grosso says. There are plenty of habits you can establish now to self-soothe, improving your mood and energy level.

And, believe it or not, self-soothing doesn’t require fancy massages or pricey products. “Self-soothing is radical and honest self-care, it’s more than the commercialized and glamorized self-care (i.e., facials and brunch) that we often hear about,” says Dr. Grosso.  

Here are some things you can do right now, by yourself, in isolation, to comfort *you*.

focus on the present

I don’t know about you, but something I’ve found just utterly delightful (wonderful, really) about this global crisis is the excruciating uncertainty: What will happen? How do we prepare best?

A foundation of self-soothing is grounding to the now. “Self-soothing skills work by helping us get in touch with the present moment and by regulating our autonomic nervous system when it is over- or under-stimulated. Oftentimes, when we are in distress, we are stuck in our heads ‘time travelling’ to future worries or ruminating about situations that have already happened,” Dr. Grosso explains. “When the sympathetic (fight or flight) branch of the autonomic nervous system is activated we may feel tense, on edge, anxious or irritable.”

Dr. Jennifer Douglas, PhD, therapist and Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, says the present is often a refuge. “When we actually bring ourselves into the moment, 99% of the time, in this current moment, we are perfectly fine,” she says. If you’re spinning into the “what coulds???” of the future, gently remind yourself that you can tether to the present.

harness the five senses

The way to ground in the moment is to bring mindful awareness — focused and nonjudgmental attention — to the five senses, says Dr. Grosso. If you notice your mind starting to wander, practice returning to observing and describing what you’re perceiving, through your senses, she adds. You might use your senses to calm already, without realizing. “Many people may use self-soothing practices, for example, movement or exercise, eating favorite foods, taking baths, unconsciously because they have a beneficial impact on their energy level and mood.”

Do these practices with intention, Dr. Grosso says. For vision, look at beautiful artwork or photos, watch videos of cute animals, or take in the sight of nature outdoors. For hearing, listen to soothing music or try to focus your attention on sounds inside and outside of the room you are in. You can smell essential oils, candles, or other pleasant smelling scents. Taste your favorite food, mints, or dark chocolate. Feel the texture, temperature, and edges of a stone, shell, fidget tools, or stress ball. 

make a self-soothe kit

Dr. Douglas tells her clients to create dedicated self-soothing kits. This way, you’ll know where to find comfort when you need.

“Ideally what happens is we start to be aware of our level of anxiety and we reach for the self-soothe kit before we hit fight or flight. I’m watching the news, I get upset, I grab my self-soothe kit, I start paying attention to my self-soothe kit — I don’t get all the way up to fight or flight,” says Dr. Douglas.

She recommends placing at least one soothing item for each of the five senses in whatever container you find most beautiful. It can be a shoebox or a makeup bag. She’s even seen miniature versions for self-soothing on the go in mint tins. An added layer of self-care is turning it into a craft project; Dr. Douglas has had clients who’ve decorated theirs in meaningful ways.

The beauty of it is you can just grab it. Use it to find calm. Dr. Douglas suggests putting it on your bedside table or by your workspace to start using it immediately in moments of need. “For delivery folks, first responders, or people in the medical community, keeping these in a glove compartment or something like that, to use whenever you’re feeling stressed is very helpful,” she adds.

look at objects around you in a new way

While stuck at home, it can be tough to seek out new pleasing items for a self-soothe kit. Do what Dr. Douglas recently did with a self-isolating client: look at your space with fresh eyes and notice things you find beautiful. You might find many objects that look pleasing and lovely, but that you don’t normally notice very much in your day-to-day life.

Consider placing photographs, pieces of art, a soft piece of fabric, like velvet, rocks or shells in your kit. She uses a photograph of her family from when her daughter was a young baby. “If you pull out that rock or shell and look at it with all of your attention you are going to notice it in a very different way than if it’s been sitting on the shelf for five years,” Dr. Douglas says.

use tools for meditation

Of the five senses, hearing might be a handy sense to focus on, thanks to the many app-based tools we have right there on our phones. You can place headphones in your self-soothing kit to remind you.

You can listen to a mindfulness and meditation app or curated Spotify playlists geared toward calming, like “Mood Booster” or “Piano Comfort.”

Apps like Insight Timer, Calm or Headspace are designed to ground listeners into the moment.  “They bring you back to your breath — back into what’s going on right now, rather than that future casting that anxiety is so fond of,” Dr. Douglas says.

What are some things you’ve done to self-soothe during this time? What would go in your self-soothe kit? Share your tips in the comments below!


Cristina Schreil is a journalist and author covering health, arts and culture. Visit cristinaschreil.com or follow her on Instagram.