Life doctor

ARE YOU in control? It is highly prized in the nervous Nineties. We don't know what's going to happen next. Our millennium bug fears have highlighted how precarious our control of life really is.

"There is a theory," says Dr Eamonn Ferguson, senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham University, "that we are driven to want a sense of coherence because it allows us to make sense of life - so depressed people who feel they are out of control actually have a better understanding of reality." In other words you may be miserable but at least you're not fooling yourself.

The sensation of lost control, a common symptom of depression, can be biological. The feeling that you are one step away from taking all your clothes off on Kings Cross Station is chemical. Low sense of control is linked to low levels of cortisol in the brain. So even feeling out of control is not a personal choice.

The non-depressed feel a whole lot happier thinking everything is under control. Armageddon (new on video) is all about America's happy delusion on this. When the meteorite is about to wipe out civilisation the other silly nations resort to praying before temples but America is kept informed by TV. The message: it may be Armageddon but we're not cancelling Oprah.

So, God and rubbish films - all a symptom of our innate need for order. We can't cope with the terrifying reality. I'm not being superior here. I may not like Bruce Willis but I'm Catholic and Jewish, for God's sake. Talk about trying to cover yourself.

Funnily enough, the people who are sure everything is under control tend to be the same people who tell you "try living in the real world". By which they mean "be like me because I can't cope with any other reality". Which is out of control.

But a certain feeling that we have influence over our life is healthy. A famous mid-Nineties study of 3,000 civil servants found that levels of stress and high blood pressure were higher among low-level employees than the high-level decision makers who were supposedly in more stressful jobs.

"It is better," says Fiona Jones, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, "to have an internal focus of control, rather than an external focus, or learned helplessness where you believe fate decides everything and there's nothing you can do. New technology is a good example. It can make you feel more in control or more useless, depending on your viewpoint."

So being in control means you flourish whatever comes your way. Remember Aesop (or was it Bagpuss?) who told the story of the mighty tree and the reed? The tree stands unflinching and laughs at the bendy reed. But who weathers the storm? Why, the reed who thrives in the buffeting wind. The tree falls down and soon has mushrooms sprouting from his feet.

Control Advice from Roy Sheppard, author of Your Personal Guide to the 21st Century:

1. People's main complaint is lack of time. Accept that you will never have time for everything. Focus on what is truly important rather than what is urgent.

2. Set goals. Focusing on what you want gives the best results. Many people don't set goals for fear of failure. But your goals can change over time.

3. Question your desire for inappropriate control in relationships. At home or work, do you insist that things have to be done "your way"? You are more likely to flourish if you can learn from other people.

4. Be open to change. It will happen anyway so you might as well enjoy it. Trite though it is, losing one job can lead to a better one.

Roy Sheppard's 'Your Personal Guide to the 21st Century' (Centre) is available at all good bookshops, pounds 12.95. 'Armageddon' is now available at video shop.

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