In order to avoid overwhelming the U.S. health care system by spreading the coronavirus to vulnerable groups, public officials around the country have asked people to practice social distancing — avoiding large crowds and close contact with others.

President Donald Trump has called for Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that no events with 50 people or more take place for the next eight weeks. In the region, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all non-essential businesses closed, including places like movie theaters and malls, and limiting restaurants and bars to takeout and delivery only.

“Right now, it’s OK to not be OK,” said Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County board of commissioners, during a news conference earlier this week. “This is a very unusual and unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in, and it’s changing every single day, and it’s perfectly normal to feel unsettled.”

Social distancing is not easy for many to cope with, but it can be particularly difficult for people already struggling with mental health issues, according to health experts. Research from the 2002 SARS pandemic — a different kind of coronavirus — showed that quarantine can result in considerable psychological stress in the form of depressive symptoms and PTSD. Other research has shown that chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by 29%.

But there are ways for people to mitigate the stress through focusing on things they like to do and establishing a sense of control over their environments and schedules, therapists say.

“What makes people feel safe and secure are things like having a place to live, get food for themselves and their families, and being able to go outside and socialize with people,” said Angelique Porter, a social worker and psychotherapist at a community behavioral health center in University City. “This has never happened at this scale before, so there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty. And that sense of being cut off from other people can increase your depression, anxiety and stress levels.”

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