Illustration: Mikey Burton
5. When does ordinary loneliness become something more serious?
There's no set length of time marking the transition from acute to chronic loneliness. What matters is how you deal with your feelings. "Blaming yourself impairs your ability to find satisfaction in any relationship," says Hawkley. "You may get used to isolation, which in turn makes it harder to engage socially and pushes you even more to the periphery." This can cause some to lose trust in everything and everyone around them. And at its extreme, and in very rare instances, there's a danger to this kind of loneliness: "I witnessed this while covering the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Arizona, the massacre in Aurora, and the horror in Newtown," says Sanjay Gupta, MD. "Experts almost always described the shooters as 'loners' or 'isolated.' While these tragedies brought up many complex issues, including gun control, loneliness is one factor we can address." While most people who suffer from loneliness will never turn violent, it's not a condition we can afford to ignore, says psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, MD. "Once we acknowledge loneliness—without making a person feel ashamed—we can conquer it."
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