How to stop worrying

Britons are suffering from more anxiety than ever. Do we simply need to view our problems in a different light? Let six chilled correspondents change your life...

Saturday 12 February 2011 01:00 GMT

How to stop worrying about...what people think of you

By Julie Burchill

The best thing, of course, is never to start. If I could bestow any gift on a girl-baby then, more than beauty, brains or talent, I would give her the ability to be immune to the opinions and/or approval of others.

Of course, I'm not talking Myra Hindley-type sociopathy here; anyway, Myra Hindley was all too eager to win the approval of Ian Brady. I don't believe that it is OK to go out killing and maiming as some sort of existential expression of free will – I don't even shoplift anymore! But I DO think that one of the major causes of female unhappiness is being at the mercy of other peoples' opinions – from immediate family to complete strangers, from the cradle to the grave.

Girls do the funniest things in the name of approval. Sleep around. Vow chastity. Starve themselves, or gorge and purge. Play dumb in order to be popular, then find themselves dismissed as airheads, so then pretend to be into Eastern religion or Noam Chomsky or whatever. What a waste of life it all is, when you could be doing what YOU want! I've never suffered from female trouble – guilt, shame, neediness, people-pleasing. Not since I was mugged by the menarche, when most females take it on board like a hitchhiker who won't take the hint about where to get off. And now, staring the menopause in the face, I certainly don't intend to start. Mother Nature is a bitch and one of the very worst finger-wagging buzz-kills you are likely to come across in your life as a broad; back that mother down, by means of contraception, abortion, hormone replacement or whatever weapon comes to hand, and you are halfway to having domain over your own being.

I realise that I'm not like other women. I've never done self-mutilation, sexual self-immolation, suicide attempts, anorexia, bulimia or any of the various other ills that female flesh is prey to. Reading my friend Emma Forrest's brilliant memoir Your Voice in My Head recently, I was struck by our different reactions to reading online comments about ourselves. She – young, beautiful, at the peak of her success – is hypnotised by pseudonymous cyber-sirens of spite who attack her: "Very often the voices work to confirm your worst suspicions. Or think of things you could never have imagined! There are only so many hours of the day to hate yourself. The outside voices are pitching in, volunteer shifts."

Myself – not young, not beautiful, way past the best of my talent – I honestly find the process of being flamed, monstered, whatever, genuinely enlivening. Something that puts me in the mood to start writing, like that first cup of Java or the early walk along the seafront. It gives me a "Come on – let's be having you!" sort of feeling. Of COURSE it doesn't hurt me. If I never cared what my parents, children, friends or husbands thought of me, why am I going to care about the opinions of a stranger with a pretend name?

I think that, ultimately, KNOWING YOURSELF is the key to not worrying about the opinions of others. So many people lie to themselves, about their morals, or their motives, or their exact level of mediocrity, and that makes them vulnerable to outside snipers. When you know and accept every last good and bad thing about yourself, no one can touch you. My life's not some slender, fragile house of cards – I am the king of my castle, overgrown, crumbling and well past its best as it may be. It's all I have and I honestly can't think of anyone I would rather be.

Reading this piece back, I see that typically it's ALL ABOUT ME and why I don't care about others' opinions, as opposed to telling you how you can achieve the same immunity. It's hard for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who gives a damn, but I'll try. THINK about WHO is judging you. IMAGINE what their failings, fetishes, fetid little foibles may be. CONSIDER how much of what they say about you isn't actually about you but about them, and what you have that they wish they had. And if all else fails, imagine them in a tutu – that always works. Unless, of course, you're being criticised by Natalie Portman.

How to stop worrying

By Sean O'Grady

For most of the time, most people do the wrong sort of worrying about money – personal financial security is actually much closer than they might think.

The first step towards financial happiness is usually about going debt-free. Almost every form of debt available right now carries a huge interest-rate penalty. Credit card, store card, overdraft and personal loan rates are much higher than is really comfortable and, unless your income is likely to jump significantly, represent a growing burden on your salary. The only exception is if you are lucky enough to have a tracker mortgage closely linked to the Bank Rate, in which case it doesn't make much sense to overpay on your mortgage. Otherwise, a comparatively modest increase in your monthly repayments will shorten the term of your mortgage debt.

The next step is to ensure you have a good six months' worth of your take-home pay stashed in a savings account. That cash will be there for you should the worst happen and you lose your job. Even though the value of your savings is being eroded by inflation, it's still essential to have some liquid funds available for emergencies.

After that, you might want to get more adventurous. If you're young you should put something – anything – into a pension. Do your own research or approach an independent financial adviser, but do do something.

Over the long run, equities – shares – usually yield the best overall returns, even beating property, but your prime residential property is free of most tax and you can "consume" it, ie, enjoy it while you invest. One key principle is to start with a broad-based general fund – an investment trust, unit trust or open-ended investment company – before going "stock picking". The second principle is to phase your investment in monthly instalments. That way you avoid putting all your life savings on the market the day before a crash.

Lastly, always review your direct debts and eliminate the inertia payments – typically gym memberships. Then make sure you've found the cheapest deals (with a quality threshold) for insurance, mobile phone and utility bills. Take a long, hard look at your car – the second most expensive thing anyone buys after their home. Avoid buying brand new is the usual rule, and go for economy on running costs, noting probable deprecation. If you live in London, sign up for the automatic congestion charge scheme, so you'll never have to pay the exorbitant fines again. If you smoke, give it up, on financial grounds.

Once you've done all that, you can treat yourself to an extravagant night out – you've earn it.

How to stop worrying about...your love life

By Rhodri Marsden

We're not very good at telling people not to worry about their love lives. I'm not sure there's even a way of doing it that isn't clichéd, hurtful or laughable. Other cultures may have some brilliant, well-chosen phrases to reassure the jilted, the terminally single, or those whose relationships are in irreparable decline, but I doubt it.

Essentially, we're telling someone not to be concerned about something that's profoundly important to nearly all of us: loving someone, and being loved back. So we're lying. When counselling a friend who's experiencing distress after being rebuffed by their latest crush, the most realistic thing we could say is, "God, this is awful. They're gorgeous, and now you're never going on holiday with them in the Languedoc. Cry it out, and you may feel marginally better in about two months". But that's hardly reassuring, so we say something blatantly untrue, like, "It's a great time to be single right now".

It's never a "great" time to be single. Sure, there are days when it's a glorious relief not to have to worry about the hang-ups, mood swings and unpredictable travel schedules of a partner, but you get couples who say things to single friends like, "We envy your freedom to do exactly what you want, don't we, darling?", before going upstairs to bring each other to a shuddering climax. Playing the field isn't always fun. If it was, its virtues wouldn't be repeatedly extolled to people who are crying out their loneliness in a dingy cocktail bar.

"Don't worry, Jennifer Aniston can't find a boyfriend either", is not reassuring. Nor is being referred to as "a lovely person", or worse, "unclaimed treasure". Nor are persistent references to Mr or Miss Right. The notion of "the one" – that solitary person who potentially offers the solution to your grim situation – can be a spectacularly depressing one; it was torn down particularly brilliantly by the comedian Tim Minchin in his song "If I Didn't Have You, Someone Else Would Do".

Much of our advice to the lovelorn is based on these bizarrely skewed concepts of probability. Yes, there are plenty more fish in the sea, but said fish don't "come along when you least expect it", and nor do you find someone "when you stop looking". There's no such thing as "trying

too hard" or "being too picky". People come along when you don't expect it, and when you do. They turn up on Tuesdays, on Thursdays, occasionally on bank holidays, in supermarkets, at parties, during games of online Scrabble. You have no control. But when you have no control, why worry? You can improve your chances by not hermetically sealing yourself off from the outside world, but then it's just about waiting.

Perhaps the most annoying advice given to the worried singleton is "be yourself", but it's actually the most realistic; because all it means is "carry on as normal". So, let's carry on as normal. Honestly, we'll be fine.

How to stop worrying about...being a bad parent

By E Jane Dickson

1. Don't listen to the voices

I can just remember the time when "parent" was a noun, comfy and inoffensive as "sock" or "muffin". The minute it became a verb, the game was up. Now we are supposed to be "parenting" for all we're worth, shouldering our way from milestone to milestone with countless shouty experts telling us where we're going wrong.

The problem with "parenting" and its million associated manuals is that not one of those manuals will be written about your child. To find the "nearest fit", you'd have to try out a dozen competing theories, by which time you and your children will be basket cases beyond the help of textbooks.

A basic paediatric handbook which tells you how to identify rashes and when to call a doctor is invaluable. Beyond that, though, it's pretty much a matter of instinct and example; if you are a reasonably sane and balanced person, the chances are your child will turn out the same.

As a last resort – for those less sane and balanced moments – TV parenting programmes can have a remarkably cheering effect as it is almost impossible to watch these hideously engineered and over-edited family situations without feeling that you, by comparison, have played a blinder.

2. No pushing!

Your child is not going to be the best at everything. Get over it. You probably weren't brilliant at everything, so why set yourself and, crucially, your child up for a fall?

Support kids in the things they're good at (this bit's easy) and encourage them in the things they find difficult (boring, but essential).

Sooner or later they'll find the thing that matters to them. It doesn't make you a bad parent if their every waking hour is not filled with improving activities.

When other parents list their child's remarkable accomplishments, congratulate them warmly and sing a little tra-la-la song in your head. To be sucked into competitive parenting is to be bound upon a wheel of fire. Innocent babes will turn, overnight, into "the opposition" and you will never sleep again.

By all means let your child know you think them the most marvellous individual on the planet, but keep it between yourselves. Don't boast about his or her extraordinary potential for fencing/ ice-dancing/ contrapuntal harmony before they've had a chance to prove it. If it doesn't work out, you will look a fool and they will feel like a failure.

Don't boast, even if they turn out to be world-beaters (because who wants to be a world-beater's mum with no mates?). Delighted modesty is a much better look.

3. It's not just you

One of these days, your chick, your darling, the jewel of your womb, will turn round and tell you where to get off. It may not be personal (though there are times when it will be crushingly so) and it may not be fair, but it will bring down previously unimagined "Where did it all go wrong?" doubts upon your head. This is where you're going to need those friends you cleverly didn't alienate by boasting about your pre-teen paragon. Because it's really only by talking to other parents of teenagers that you can gain the necessary perspective. It is highly likely that they will be having identical face-offs within their family, and you, from the safe distance of "other people's children" will find yourself talking the parents off the ledge, pointing up the many excellent qualities of the young person in question and making large allowance for hormonal disturbance, changing times, etc. At some point in your wise-woman spiel, it will occur to you that these reasonable arguments can equally be applied to your own child. And – for as long as you can hold that thought – everyone's a winner!

How to stop worrying about...growing old

By Virginia Ironside

It depends, of course, what you mean by old. As I've always thought that 60 was old – even when I was 59 – I think we can take 60 as a starting point in the land of the old. And it is a different land. There's a poet who said: "The trouble with old age is that it is not interesting until one gets there. It's a foreign country, with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged".

So take heart from the fact that when you get there, you'll find you've changed. You won't worry about it. You might, even, like myself, love it.

Remember that age isn't the same as it was. In the old days, people of 60 seemed completely past it and, with few exceptions, most of them were. They had white hair, sticks and sat in rocking chairs, knitting or doing the crossword. But because from now on in, all people coming up to 60 are part of the baby-boomer generation, you'll find you have far more in common with someone of 40 or even 30 than you do with someone only five years your senior.

And if you don't believe my optimism, just look at the surveys. In one carried out by Boots a couple of years ago, it was found that people of between 65 and 74 were the happiest. "Life may begin at 40, but the fun really starts at 50!" read another headline. And, "We're happiest at 74! It's all downhill till 40, then life gets better and better, say scientists". Old age is something to anticipate with joy, not worry about one bit.

Of course this optimism is partly because, at 60, we are entitled to all kinds of wonderful benefits. We can get into most films, art galleries, exhibitions and theatres at special rates. We must be the last generation to get a pension, we get £250 bunged into our bank accounts every year for heating whether we want it or not, and – bliss! – we become the proud owners of a Freedom Pass, which will give us Londoners free transport anywhere we want in the city.

When you get old, you can have a snooze in the afternoon without feeling guilty. You can do what you want and not what you ought. And a lot of anxiety-making choices drop away. You might, if you're lucky, experience the incredible pleasure of grandchildren, quite different to your own children. Old age gives you far greater confidence, which means you're nicer to people and as a result they're nicer to you. And if you find it hard to think of anything to do, you can travel down memory lane, a huge wide motorway of past experiences (unlike the short, narrow mews that is all young people have to travel down when they think of the past).

And as you get older you develop a sense of pride. You've made it to old age! Every day is now a bonus, rather than a laborious step to get you through life.

And the prospect of death is only worrying if you make it so. A friend of mine said recently: "A lot of my good friends and old relatives have gone down the plughole. I can't say I'll mind following down the same plughole when the time comes".

Rather than worry about old age, why not take Noël Coward's view? "How foolish to think one could ever slam the door in the face of age," he said. "Much better to be polite and gracious and ask him to lunch in advance."

Virginia Ironside's 'The Virginia Monologues – Why Growing Old is Great' is published by Fig Tree (£7.99)

How to stop worrying about...resolutions

By Tom Hodgkinson

In general, I would argue that it is best not to make resolutions at all. This is simply because – round about now, in the doldrums of February – they will tend to have the opposite effect to the one intended. After a few weeks of not drinking or not smoking, you will inevitably start again, but now the drinking and smoking will be accompanied by a big dose of burdensome guilt, making your whole life a whole lot worse than it would have been had you not made any resolutions in the first place.

My own resolution used to be "get up earlier". I never did get up earlier. I got up at the same late time as usual, but guiltily. I therefore decided that it was better to follow your own natural inclinations and get up at a time that seemed to suit your own body, and not feel guilty about it; after all, as GK Chesterton argued, there is nothing innately morally good about early rising, or bad about its opposite. The doctrine of early rising is promoted merely for the benefit of the owners of the machines, that is, the mill-owning capitalists.

The other point about resolutions is that they are nearly always puritanical in nature. I sometimes wonder why we don't resolve in the other direction. "This year I resolve to have more sex"; "I resolve to drink more"; "I resolve to work less hard"; "I resolve to have more lie-ins". I can report one successful resolution which I made last year: it was to earn less money. It's a very nice feeling when a resolution comes true.

And this is perhaps another point: why not make your resolutions a little more realistic, easier to accomplish? Instead of resolving to change into a completely different person – an impossible task which would involve a personality transplant, and that new person in any case is usually an unpleasant, priggish, hard-working, pleasure-hating sort of type – why not exert tiny amounts of self-control? Examples might be: I resolve to have one non-drinking day this year. I resolve to get up early once every six months. I resolve to read one page of War and Peace.

An example of a great and failed resolver was Dr Johnson. On his birthday each year, or at Easter, he would write a resolution in his journal: "This year I hope to learn diligence". Or: "Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth". He would also resolve "to rise early" and "to reject or expel sensual images, and idle thoughts". So it went on, year after year, and if Johnson himself is to be believed, to little effect. A diary entry from later in life reads: "I have now spent 55 years in resolving; having from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing; the need of doing therefore is pressing".

Resolutions, then, are clearly made to be broken. Perhaps no one ever seriously imagined that they would be kept. The only people who would have the determination to keep them, would be the sort of Puritan prigs mentioned above, and the Puritan prig would not need to make them in the first place, since he or she would already be of stainless character. So it is by definition only sinners who need to make resolutions, and sinners by definition are sinners, so it is unlikely that they will not sin again.

I would go so far as to say that if you must make resolutions, it is your social duty to break them. If you did not break them then you would make other people feel bad. But breaking them causes great joy to your friends, as we all love to see others fail. Sticking doggedly to your resolutions all year therefore is in fact an act of great rudeness. Imperfection is polite.

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