What can we do as Rotarians to avoid the negative effects of isolation?
During the pandemic people discovered a new way to keep in touch and take care of each other in this delicate and lonely time.
Self-quarantine, isolation, social distances, all necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, help to keep us safe but also isolate us, creating feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Despite all this, Rotary clubs are trying to mitigate these negative effects, both in their clubs and in the society in which they live, discovering new ways of doing service.
Why do we suffer psychologically when we’re isolated physically? For Sylvia Whitlock, a semi-retired marriage and family therapist and member of the Rotary Club of Claremont, California, USA, the answer is simple: “Isolation is a stress-producing state, as one of our human needs is for connections.” The ability to connect is inherent in us, says Mary Berge, a clinical psychologist and member of the Rotary Club of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA. “Oxytocin, released when you hug someone, is also released through bonding socially,” she says. As oxytocin is released, these social bonds are strengthened.
Those feel-good chemicals — also produced through acts of altruism — don’t necessarily stop flowing, even in isolation, says Berge, who regularly does smiling exercises with her anxious or stressed clients. These exercises can produce results just like genuine smiles do.
“Science tells us your brain really does not know if it is faked, forced, or real,” says Berge. “It just feels those muscles and says, ‘She’s smiling!’ and releases mostly dopamine.”
The same pandemic that separated us from each other can also teach us to become closer. Whitlock believes that online club meetings counteract the negative effects of isolation. These virtual meetings allow us to see friendly faces and control each other.
The pandemic has also changed the lives of young people. Many Rotary Youth Exchange students who were supposed to explore new cultures found themselves at home in 2020. And when schools closed due to the pandemic, Interact clubs could not meet as usual.
Venezuelan Rotary Youth Exchange student Anniela Carracedo saw an opportunity to help. She founded Rotary Interactive Quarantine, a website that connects Rotary youth around the world so they can share project ideas and provide emotional support to others. In partnership with District 6840 in the United States, the site hosts meetings that have helped more than 500 Rotary youth from 55 countries make new friends.
For weeks, northern Italy was the center of the pandemic. In Milan, the Rotary Club of Milano Europa helped some of the most isolated of all — hospitalized COVID-19 patients, many terminally ill. Through the Rotary Connette (Rotary Connects) project, clubs purchased 136 tablets and distributed them to 18 hospitals and nursing homes, which allowed more than 1,500 patients to see and talk to loved ones who couldn’t visit. As part of the project, classical musicians also gave virtual concerts that soothed the patients.
Whitlock, the therapist from the Rotary Club of Claremont, says that discovering how we can help others during the pandemic, in our clubs and in our communities, is part of the joy of Rotary.
“We have opportunities to care for others, maybe in different ways than we did before,” she says. “Reaching out beyond ourselves to protect and care has many returns.”