The Arlington County Board made its first attempt yesterday to curtail the impact of the Reagan budget cuts by dipping into a special emergency fund to restore $279,000 to various social programs.

But in restoring funds to some programs, the board found itself denying -- or at the least delaying -- relief for others, a process rife with painful political decisions.

"It is very difficult," said board member Ellen Bozman. "We are searching for the right philosophy, but I feel as though we are grappling with the unknown."

In the sweepstakes for the $1 million in contingency funds set aside by Arlington in anticipation of federal cutbacks, the winners yesterday were a counseling program for Indochinese refugees, adult day care, child day care and homemaker services for the elderly and handicapped.

These were the programs recommended for rescue by county staff and an advisory fiscal affairs committee. But a special lobbying effort by the county's Northern Virginia Association for Retarded Citizens succeeded in securing $14,000 for a transportation program for the retarded.

Although the Arlington Community Action Program was not assured help for its severely cut community services program, it did manage -- by dint of a strongly worded pitch to the board -- to move from third to second place in the county's list of future priorities.

"Had I not been there, I might not have been anywhere," said Lillian E. Brown, ACAP's executive director. "My concern was that we be included, because we serve the truly needy -- as the saying goes these days."

But without a definite commitment by the county, Brown said that she would have to proceed with drastic cuts in the community services program, which lost more than one-third of its $109,000 budget on Oct. 1. That will mean a cutback in community weatherization efforts, job placement and the loss of a director, a community organizer, a bookkeeper and possibly a secretary, said Brown.

The anguish over the impact of federal budget cuts, which in Arlington amounted to more than $3 million, will continue as the board looks to spend the remaining $721,000 in its emergency fund. About $500,000 of that fund is being saved in case the federal government cuts aid to school districts with high numbers of federal employes.