Center for Youth Wellness

Sheltering in Place: ACEs-Informed Tips for Self-Care During a Pandemic

Millions of lives have been affected in unprecedented ways by the Coronavirus (COVID-19). We are all grappling with uncertainty—our daily routines interrupted, not knowing what is to come. For those of us who have Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), these times can be particularly distressing. 

At the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW), we know that childhood trauma can have a significant impact on an individual’s health and well-being – both physiologically and psychologically. Since the CDC-Kaiser ACE study was published 20 years ago, research has shown that traumatic events in childhood can change our rapidly developing brains and bodies. When we’re exposed to ACEs at a young age, we encounter the risk of developing an overactive stress response — what the American Academy of Pediatrics now calls, “the toxic stress response.” Toxic stress not only affects brain development in childhood, but can also change our hormonal systems, immune systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. Without intervention, this can result in behavior problems, learning difficulties, and chronic health issues throughout our lives.

For those hearing about ACEs for the first time, this may seem like more bad news on top of what we’re already enduring with the daily barrage of COVID-19 news, but there is good news: we can provide ourselves with mini doses of healing through 7 healthy evidence-based practices to help regulate an overactive stress response, and sheltering in place is the perfect time for us to practice. 

While focusing on self-care might seem overwhelming right now, there are a few easy ways to incorporate self-care into each day. Even focusing on just one practice each day, we may regain a sense of empowerment in the midst of this chaotic time knowing that we have taken steps to take care of ourselves, which also better equips us to take care of others. 

7 Domains of Wellness 

Whether we’re sheltering in place with others or by ourselves, the self-quarantine provides an opportunity for us to reflect on these healing practices and to challenge the people we care about to practice with us. 

  1. Supportive relationships: Those of us who rely on friendships to share experiences and vent frustrations and children whose friends seem far away may be feeling lonely or sad because we feel disconnected from our support systems. Even while confined to the house, we can maintain those relationships, and perhaps even strengthen them. Technology tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, and FaceTime (available on Apple products) are great ways for families to video conference with each other, or arrange playdates with friends to sustain those connections. Throw virtual “house parties,” social hours, game nights, and participate in live concerts with celebrities via Facebook Live. Make some popcorn and watch movies together on Netflix with a free Chrome plugin.
  2. Sleep: Getting enough sleep is one of the most important factors in strengthening our immune system and is crucial for those of us who have experienced ACEs, particularly children. Research shows that children who get the right amount of sleep are sick less frequently, have less trouble with focus and behavior, and manage stress more easily. Good sleep hygiene means following a routine each night in order to program our bodies to get into sleep mode and to wake up at a consistent time each morning. The National Sleep Foundation recommends a series of behaviors to ensure we get quality rest. With better sleep, we’ll be primed and ready to face the challenges of this unpredictable time.
  3. Nutrition: In times of great stress almost all of us do it – resort to indulging in junk food. But we do this for a reason. Research has shown that stress can affect the self-control mechanisms in our brain; when we experience a stressful day at work or a tense conversation, we are much more likely to pick up a sweet treat or a bag of chips over a piece of fruit or a veggie when choosing a snack. This sends our already taxed system into a tailspin as consuming too many processed foods, which tend to be high in unhealthy fats, sodium and sugar, can cause agitation, scattered concentration, fatigue and moodiness. When we nourish our bodies with nutritious, whole foods, we give ourselves the best chance at having a positive and productive day. Here are some easy ways to add more nutrition to your meals.
  4. Exercise: Physical activity is a great way to manage stress and to ease feelings of anxiety and depression. Research suggests that exercise may fight depression partly by expanding brain volume in an area of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotion. In addition, daily physical activity can help counteract some of the key impacts of ACEs. For children, regular workouts can reduce stress hormone levels, improve behavior and concentration and strengthen the immune system. Physical activity also promotes nerve growth in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory and thinking. Gyms, playgrounds, and other public areas may not be options right now, but there are plenty of exercises you can do using items you already have around the house, in the safety of your own backyard, or even within your neighborhood when practicing social distancing. If you do better with the motivation of an instructor, there are free and fun online yoga and aerobics classes to help keep you moving.
  5. Mental healthcare: If you find the added stress and unpredictability of COVID-19 too much to handle on your own, check in with your counselor (if you already have one), or your primary healthcare provider to get connected with someone to talk to. If you do not have access to responsive healthcare at this time, there are many free resources you can use to get through these exceptionally tough times, including the Safe & Sound talkline for parents at 415-441-KIDS (5437) and SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990. Click here to see a list of resources for more immediate Covid-19-related mental health needs.
  6. Mindfulness: Many of us who have been exposed to ACEs may have difficulty controlling our impulses when faced with stressful situations, but simple exercises involving deep breathing and mindfulness – that is, paying close attention to what you are feeling and experiencing – can help us stay calm and in control. YouTube provides a multitude of free videos from beginning to advanced to help guide us in establishing a meditation practice. Try Jon Kabat Zinn’s bodyscan for a guided meditation that can bring about a sense of deep relaxation.  
  7. Nature: Research has shown that time spent in nature provides immense benefits to both our physical and psychological health. Being in green spaces and around lakes, streams, and trees can reduce stress and depression and can even improve self-esteem. However, with many national and state parks shutting down due to social distancing protocols, many may not have access to green spaces. The good news is that even viewing scenes of nature can be effective in reducing stress and feelings of overwhelm. Yosemite and Yellowstone offer virtual tours and Netflix offers a variety of nature programming. Other ideas to bring nature into your home: use essential oils like lavender, mint, and sage, or create your own green space by growing and taking care of plants at home. You can regrow many plants from the basic produce items you may have in your fridge.


We tie all of these practices together with the most crucial practice of all: self-compassion. Many of us have been feeling scared, powerless, and ashamed of some of our natural responses to sheltering in place. Now more than ever, we must learn to be kind to ourselves and accepting of our feelings, as we navigate this uncertain time together.

As meditation and self-care teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “When I understand my suffering, I love myself, and I know how not to keep nourishing the suffering, how to transform the suffering. I get lighter, I become more compassionate, and with that kind of freedom and compassion, I feel liberated.”

Other renowned mindfulness leaders such as Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn (who is doing a free daily guided meditation here during the week of March 30th to April 3rd) offer words of wisdom and guidance on practicing self-compassion that may be particularly useful in uncertain times like these. 

In the end, it is about taking care of our bodies, our hearts and our minds and giving ourselves the time and space to not be overwhelmed. Trying out one or more of these practices each day can be grounding and will help us feel more prepared to face each day with strength, courage and energy. Stay healthy and safe.

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Center for Youth Wellness is not a crisis center. Those experiencing urgent medical or psychiatric concerns should dial 911 or their local emergency agency for assistance. We are unable to respond to messages requesting referrals, treatment or clinical consultations from individuals who are not our patients.