Amy Jenkins: A dose of Noughties realism – and therapy that works

We all know the part of the mind that takes over in spite of our best intentions
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The Independent Online

It takes a while for a decade to warm up, for us to be able to see the point, the hook, the theme. They say the Sixties didn't start until 1963 – but how long was it before we could pick out the melody from all the noise? It's 2008 and I'm only now starting to be able to see what the Noughties has been on a personal level, what it's been like for me.

Looking back, it seems easy to get the flavour of the Nineties. They were pretty warm and fuzzy. There was the end of Thatcherism and the fresh hope that New Labour brought in. There was a brief moment when we weren't at war with anyone. There was economic boom. I did a lot of raving and partying and got a bit of that feeling of belonging, of a "generation" finding its feet.

The Nineties was also the decade of the New Age. In London, "New Age" pretty much boiled down to reading self-help, going to therapy, consulting alternative practitioners and doing a lot of (horribly gruelling) Ashtanga yoga. I heartily embraced all of this. Having been brought up in a very pragmatic and secular atmosphere, I found it exciting to let a little magic back in. I didn't really believe in astrology, for example, but I enjoyed the mysticism of it and even went to classes for a bit.

The downside came some years later, when all that magic had morphed into a worrying tendency to magical thinking. I was trying to get pregnant and an idea was beginning to take hold in my woolly New Age head that my failure was something to do with my faulty attitude. Homeopaths, Chinese doctors, acupuncturists and well-meaning friends implied that I just didn't want it enough. So really my failure was, in some ineffable way, my own fault – and that's enough to make anyone anxious.

The tipping point with the alternative world came when a friend of a friend swore by an applied kinesiologist she knew. The recommendation was so heartfelt and I wanted to get pregnant so much that I didn't dare not go. The practitioner put brightly coloured plastic eyeshades on my head while making me hold small glass vials of nutrients and doing "muscle tests" – she moved my arm up and down.

It didn't work but, as always with alternative therapies, I got the feeling that was my fault. I should have taken the pills that didn't seem to be doing anything for longer. I shouldn't have eaten dairy. I shouldn't have used peppermint toothpaste. I should have had those mercury fillings removed. I think, though, it was the coloured eyeshades: they were just too hokey. Thank goodness I went to a proper doctor, had my fallopian tubes unblocked (the real problem) and got pregnant immediately.

So the Noughties are having their effect and now, like many people, I've moved away from psychotherapy and taken up CBT. Cognitive behavioural therapy is the most pragmatic therapy there is and one of the few endorsed by the Government because it actually has a measurable success rate.

In CBT you don't sit around talking about yourself. I get a lecture from my therapist every week which boils down to: pull your socks up. OK, it's a bit more sophisticated than that but, in essence, it's about easy-to-apply strategies for managing negative thoughts and middle-class angst. It's working and I love it. Thoughts, my therapist says, are very untrustworthy things. Don't buy into them. Some thoughts are useful – learn to recognise those. Ditch the others. And just because you feel something, it doesn't mean it's true.

We all know what it is to wrestle with ourselves – there's the part of the mind that can sit back and analyse and there's the part of the mind that takes over – despite our best intentions (that's the part that has a second helping of treacle tart even though you just decided not to).

Jonathan Haidt, who wrote The Happiness Hypothesis, has a marvellous analogy for the way the mind is divided like this. Haidt calls these separate parts the rider and the elephant. We can never completely control the elephant – but if we are wily, we can train it. An alcoholic, for example, can rarely just resolve to stop drinking. It doesn't work. But if he goes to AA and inculcates himself into a different set of practical habits within a supportive structure, he has a chance. CBT is all about these sorts of pragmatic strategies for taming the elephant.

My other favourite book for my Noughties experience is Ben Goldacre's Bad Science. It debunks all the confused thinking about antioxidants, anti-ageing face creams and homeopathy. When someone swears by Bach flower remedies, I cry, "What's the evidence?" and look it up on the Cochrane Collaboration – a very serious website that collates properly conducted scientific studies from around the world.

All in all, the Noughties has been a pretty hardcore decade, the tone being set early on with 9/11 and the "war on terror". And now we're moving into recession and that seems to fit right in. It's been tough stuff and there's been a return to realism – for me, at least.