Counting it out

On the eve of the next thousand years, civilisation as we know it will come to an end. There will be plagues and pestilence throughout the world, the coming of heaven on earth to the righteous and damnation to the rest. Then again, maybe we'll all just go to the pub and usher in the new year with a slurred rendition of Auld Lang Syne while hoping that the bank computer will wipe out our overdrafts as it crashes from the millennium bug.

But even though the second scenario is more likely than the first, many predict the coming of the year 2000 could have a considerably greater effect on our health than the customary New Year's Day hangover. Overheated expectations could well create the human equivalent of that old millennium bug. In their book, The Age Of Anxiety, Wellcome Research Institute Fellow Roy Porter and author Sarah Dunant look back to the turn of the century for a taste of things to come.

'One hundred years ago, there was an outbreak of moral panic in what became known as 'fin de siecle decadence'. The world of Bohemian Paris and Vienna, of Rimbaud and Wilde; art repudiating bourgeois morality for drink and drugs, strange sex and the belief that true artistic creativity could only come out of corruption.' Not only that, they add, but there was tremendous anxiety over syphilis and fears of physical degeneration - 'Every end of century needs its plague fears. For syphilis now read Aids.' So if a mere new century can achieve this sort of dire expectations, what can we expect of a new millennium? 'The turn of the millennium will be a period when people will reflect on their lives, where they are coming from and going to,' says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. 'We will question our work, our domestic relations and our lifestyles. People who feel trapped and can't do anything about it may suffer from depression. Others may feel the opposite and find it a positive time.

'Whichever, it will be a definite psychological marker, unlike a decade or usual new year. And these concerns will take a physical as well as mental toll - since many experts now see stress as a key factor in health problems. Stress can undermine the immune system and be a catalyst for asthma, constipation, diarrhoea and high blood pressure. Its effect on blood pressure may be a factor in raising the numbers of heart disease and stroke victims,' Cooper adds.

Although the millennium is simply an artificial construct - to a large chunk of the world's population, the date will be irrelevant because it lives by a different calendar - Western culture is steeped in references to the importance of millennia.

The more importance you attach to the event, the more likely it is to affect your life, says Dr Geoff Scobie, senior psychologist at the University of Glasgow. 'Members of religious sects for whom the millennium is highly significant will be particularly vulnerable to psychological disturbance,' Scobie says. But other more modern anxieties - not least where exactly to spend the momentous first minutes of 2000 - even if they do not threaten the apocalypse or promise heaven on earth, still pose a severe challenge to our mental and physical health.

One example of this is the computer millennium bug scare, a problem many experts believe will not actually be an issue for the majority of us. Yet, people's anxieties are stoked daily by media stories of the technological disaster.

And while it is not logical to think that just by the turn of a calendar page everything can change, many men, women and children will expect this high-profile shift in time to produce an equally spectacular change in their lives, Cooper says. 'People will expect the delivery of more sophisticated and technologically advanced health treatments and quicker, better cures for cancer and heart disease. They are then likely to become disillusioned if they don't get the results. Reader in social gerontology at Keale University, Dr Simon Biggs, has been testing the likelihood that we'll spend the early years of the millennium in a convulsion of anticlimax via focus groups which discuss the changing views and concerns of ordinary people in the approach to 2000. He says everyone wants change, but with minimum effort. 'It's hope without history. Modern health concerns can be seen as part of this trend. Viagra, genetic engineering and HRT treatment - there is a whole industry developing around putting off death and denying endings in an existential way.' When this time of catastrophe, idyll or inertia does arrive, however, it will be people's attitudes and the positive or negative world events leading up to it that define how each one of us copes, Cooper thinks.

'If, as we approach the millennium, things start going wrong, then it may cause an upsurge in illness. Things are happening that are critical in people's attitudes towards the dawn of the new century: the single currency, Middle East negotiations, Russia. These will determine how secure individuals feel and affect their stress levels and ultimately their immune systems and health.' So let's hope for a good year - a sucessful entrance into the next 1,000 years could depend on it.

How to banish those millennium blues l Avoid all talk of miracles.

l Maintain a healthy lifestyle - high-fibre, fresh food, not too much alcohol and plenty of exercise, to help your body cope with stress.

l Don't sit on your problems in the hope that things will all change in the new millennium. Talk to friends and people who can support and advise.

l Remember millions of people won't be interested in the year 2000, so there's no need to try to rush through changes in your life or work to fit in with this arbitrary mark on the calendar.

l Don't panic and enjoy the party.

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