FRANCESCA, 34, has agoraphobia and continual panic attacks. "I hardly ever feel safe," she says, "not even at home. I get attacks waiting in queues, in the supermarket, in the car. Basically whenever my mind is unoccupied."

She has tried many things. Reflexology and acupuncture have a temporary effect. Psychotherapy, while illuminating, didn't work. Drugs are temporary. Relaxation strategies actually make her worse. "In a panic attack, you believe that the panic won't overwhelm you if you are tensed up. If you relax it can."

It's the childhood thing of believing that, scrunched up into a little ball with your eyes closed, it'll go away. Whatever "it" may be. Interestingly it is also a supposedly childish behaviour that has proven more helpful, for Francesca is calming down by playing games.

Francesca attends a weekly NHS-funded therapy group. Up to eight people, referred by their GPs or psychiatrists, with a diverse range of problems - from schizophrenia to compulsive disorders - gather together to ask fundamental questions. Like, "Which American mountain should be 400m higher in a 1979 atlas than it is in a 1981 atlas?"

Well it beats being asked how you got on with your parents.

"Today we played Guesstures," says Francesca. "It's a miming game. We all felt nervous at first, but it's a friendly environment so we enjoyed it in the end. I don't get attacks when I'm playing."

"Games allow you to do things you wouldn't normally do," explains Diana Pidwell head of the psychology service for older adults in Blackpool. "They break down your inhibitions. You are allowed to be aggressive and competitive. Failure doesn't matter.

"Research has shown that older people can even benefit from computer games. Originally games, like hide-and-seek, taught us survival skills. Now because they were ingrained in our evolution it means that, like exercise, they retain an important influence on our well-being."

Actually games still teach survival. My cousin used to be frisked before a game of Monopoly after we discovered he arrived with a hidden stash of money taken from his own set. He is now a successful businessman. Even I demanded hush money from the corrupt banker.

There were valuable life lessons in this - and not just in moral ambiguity. Life was not to be taken too seriously. You may be bankrupt, but hey, there's always another roll of the dice.

I am suspicious of people who don't like games. They are a sniffy lot - either shrivelled by a traumatic childhood incident (like a bad-loser, tantrum-throwing Dad) or they have a personality disorder I call "over- grown-upness" which means they prefer to read books about maximising their management potential. "Some people consider that games are too trivial and unconstructive," agrees Diana Pidwell. "They shouldn't take life so seriously. Playing breaks down barriers, makes you laugh. You can't worry when you're trying to put your right foot on a red spot and your boss is crouched between your legs."

Are you taking life too seriously?

1. Does the word "charades" send you running to the video shop?

2. Do you consider games to be a waste of time and something that ruins conversation - and then find conversation unsatisfying too?

3. Do you know the cost of landing on Park Lane with three houses?

If your answers were "yes", "yes" and "no idea but I'll find out immediately", you are in danger of becoming a stressed-out bore. Spend a weekend in your pyjamas with friends, a PlayStation, a Twister pack and a set of Monopoly immediately.

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