Finding Calm in a Crisis: Changing What We Tell Ourselves

**By Bethany Davis, LSWAIC**

“I’m feeling too much all at once.”

Is this what you think when people ask “how are you” during the COVID-19 crisis? If so, you’re not alone: the impact the pandemic is having on our lives, families and communities makes higher stress a natural response. We want to know when this will end, how to stay protected, what will happen to our loved ones and so much more.

What I see as I work with people is that it’s not the course of the crisis that’s having the most effect, but more what they’re telling themselves about what’s going on. Our self-talk can undermine our sense of how safe we are, as we sort through not only a morass of information, but changes in our work, daily routines and relationships.

Here are four key areas in which redirecting our self-talk – and taking some simple actions – can help us feel more grounded in in a storm of emotions.

Minding the monologue

Does any of this self-talk sound familiar?

  • I am unproductive, I should be doing more.
  • I’m feeling alone.
  • This reminds me of feeling depressed, maybe that’s coming back.
  • This is how it’s going to be forever.

It’s important to know it’s possible to adjust our framework. Think of it like changing a lens on a microscope; seeing things in different focus can break the cycle of thought patterns that tend to feed anxiety and obsessive thinking. Here are examples of how to reframe your self-talk:

  • Staying home during this crisis is not a reflection on my self-worth or work ethic.
  • I can still maintain good relationships and reach out to those I love.
  • It’s normal to feel down when distancing, but it is not permanent.
  • This situation is temporary.

Be aware of “should” during self-talk, as in “I should be handling this better,” or “I should be more grateful.” Should and shouldn’t feed negative self-judgment.

Examining Isolation

dog-comfortTime to change that lens again! What are you telling yourself about being physically alone? Shame, blame or depression are some of the feelings that may come up when we are isolating from others. Switching your mindset can start with considering the difference between being “alone” versus being “lonely.”

Remember that we are temporarily distancing ourselves for health precautions. We are not cut off from relationships, friendships or love. We all count on these connections to check in and feel OK, and we can make still make those connections while distancing. In the meantime, try being curious about what feelings come up about being alone. Don’t see them as good or bad, but as evidence that everyone’s well-being depends on human connection.

Creating Feelings of Control

A good single phrase for self-talk when you feel out of control: “I’m going to be OK.” We’ve all heard the stories of panic buying, which may be an attempt to feel more in control. In moments of being overwhelmed by a perceived need, it can help to physically pause to regain a sense of calm. Try opening your hands while sitting in a posture of acceptance, close your eyes and take deep breaths.

Remember activities that you can control: I can go outside or take a walk. I can FaceTime or call family members or friends. I can listen to music. I can pick up an old project or start a new one. I can write down my thoughts or write a loved one a letter. I can sit in the sun.

Engaging Joy  

So much is happening in our world now, and if we’re being honest, it’s taking a lot of our energy and mental space. Consider giving your brain a break from scrolling through the endless crisis news and social media threads.

Here’s a question: When was the last time you felt happy? What were you doing? For me it was FaceTiming with my niece and nephew, sitting in the sun, calling my grandmother and looking up dog memes online (try it!) If you can remember something you enjoyed last week, try to think of how you felt in the moment. Whatever it was, try to do more of that, more often.

Another pathway to joy is through empathy and compassion for others. Once you’ve recognized the importance of self-talk and showing compassion for yourself, holding it for others becomes possible. Opening our minds to what people outside our circle are facing helps switch off our negative thought patterns and ease resentment about our own situation. We can think of (or maybe we know) people who work in health care, or who’ve lost their job, or even have symptoms and are stressed and self-isolating. Recognizing that we all face different challenges can open our capacity to feel joy again.

If You Need More Help

There will be times when all of us feel more stress than we have the tools to handle ourselves. If you have resources or access to a therapist via an online format, this would be a great time to connect to help you build on a more positive framework. The King County 24-hour crisis line offers immediate help and translation services for over 155 languages: (866) 427-4747.

Feeling anxious – or a variety of other emotions – during this crisis is completely normal. What can help is noticing patterns of thinking that get in the way of experiencing pockets of happiness and calm that can keep us moving forward in difficult times. We may all experience pain, heartache and loss, but soon we will all know the joy that still lies ahead.

Here’s some joy you can pocket to get you started, from the poem “Invictus,” written by William Ernest Henley in 1873, while recovering in an infirmary:

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

Bethany.DavisBethany Davis, LSWAIC, is an Oncology Social Worker who enjoys writing about mental health. 


  1. Mike Dekema says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. The emotional health issues resulting from this virus are going to be huge and more resources are going to be needed to cope with it all. Hoping for something positive resulting from such a mess and posts like yours help a lot.
    Stay safe and well.

  2. Thank you for this post. We all have some level of stress even on our good days. This article helps me realize just how powerful my own self-talk can be and that I have the control over it. Thank you!!

  3. Dawn McHugh says:

    You amaze me, Bethany!

  4. Thank you for sharing! MH experts are concerned front-line providers will develop PTSD symptoms. I hope those caring for patients are offered psychological support now so they will recognize if they develop PTSD, anxiety or depressive symptoms. Please don’t be afraid to ask for help!

  5. Thank you for this encouragement!


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