Stress Management 2021: The Case for Self-Care in the COVID-19 Era

February 8, 2021
Craig Primack, MD

Obesity Medicine Association President Craig Primack, MD, reminds PCPs that stress management is a key to good self care for everyone and offers tips to share with patients.

With each new year, many people set new goals. Often those goals have to do with their health — whether that's eating better, working out more, or finally picking up flossing, the theme of taking better care of oneself is omnipresent as another January begins. As clinicians, we would do well to counsel our patients to consider another approach to positive health practices in 2021: Stress management.

While it is true that in the short-term, acute stress can increase visual acuity, decrease pain, increase blood flow, and boost the immune system, long-term or chronic stress, can contribute to adverse health outcomes and is also associated with an increased risk for obesity. Of course, obesity rates have been on the rise for more than 40 years and the number of adults with the condition has increased by more than 200% over the same period, and that’s not due entirely to stress.

But during the singular year just passed where we all had to learn to live under the shadow of a global pandemic, both stress and obesity have played on the minds of clinicians who understand how both conditions can adversely impact mental health and complicate COVID-19 cases. Given the potential for the virus’ adverse impact on lung function, patients with obesity also have a significantly higher risk of hospitalization and mortality due to COVID-19.

Stress does not guarantee obesity, nor does obesity guarantee stress, but the link between these challenging conditions is a powerful reminder that the ongoing pandemic has an impact that extends well beyond active cases to the support we need to offer everyone trying to stay healthy and safe.

To that end, I urge you to consider advising all your patients — not just those living with obesity — to incorporate stress reduction strategies into their overall wellness routines. Stress reduction has been linked to reduced risk of hospitalization, greater resilience, and overall improved health—all significant outcomes for people with obesity, but clearly ideal outcomes for anyone.

Suggest the following approaches to anyone looking for a bit of wellness inspiration as we wade deeper into a new calendar year and a new season of COVID-19 complications.


Self-care, self-care, self-care. As we rapidly approach the one-year mark from the time most of us started living under COVID-19-related restrictions, it’s important to counsel patients to maintain self-care activities. Now more than ever, all of us—health care providers and patients alike—should work to prioritize the habits and behaviors that influence overall health. This is particularly true for patients with obesity and others who might be on long-term care plans.

Imagine new ways to meet health goals. By now we’re all accustomed to the challenges of social distancing, but with much of the winter ahead and the ever-present possibility of spring storms, the longest stretch of the pandemic without consistent outdoor opportunities lies ahead for many. With that in mind, we should all consider setting achievable health goals that can be safely achieved. Walks around the neighborhood are great in decent weather while streaming a yoga or exercise class might be preferable in inclement weather.

Socialize safely. If the course of this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that social connection matters. Nearly a year on, we are all up-to-speed on the latest ways to remain together, even when we are apart. The challenge now lies in keeping those connections up after the novelty of video chats has long since worn off. Remind your patients of the importance of maintaining connection to their community.

Keep up those creative hobbies. Encourage patients to seek out active and enriching after-work and weekend activities like journaling, reading, puzzles and other forms of art therapy. Stimulating the mind in an enjoyable way often helps people to de-stress and decompress more readily than passive activities. If 2020 was the year you mastered baking bread, make 2021 the year you tackle something equally challenging and rewarding.

As we all grapple with how to remain physically and mentally healthy during the pandemic, clinicians have the opportunity to make a considerable impact by adding their voices to the conversation about the importance of stress reduction. The unique stressors of this moment will take a toll on all your patients, and those with obesity will feel the sting even more keenly. Advocating for their mental health as well as their physical health is one more way we can show up for our patients during this trying time.

For clinicians looking to offer more guidance and insight to patients living with obesity, The Obesity Medicine Association (OMA) also offers resources, such as the Obesity Algorithm, which was designed to keep docs up-to-date on the latest in obesity medicine and was just updated for 2021. Together, we can help our patients and communities discover better health outcomes for the new year and beyond.

To learn more about OMA or to become a member, visit: www.obesitymedicine.org.


Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA, diplomate, American Board of Obesity Medicine, is the president of the Obesity Medicine Association. He is board-certified in internal medicine, pediatrics, and obesity medicine. Dr Primack has been named “Top Doctor” by Phoenix Magazine since 2008. He is also the author of the book, “Chasing Diets.”