Dear Shrink Rap: I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. My eight-year trauma ended three years ago. I've been studying trading continuously while working out the PTSD. I know how to trade -- my problem is concentration. When I relapse, it's very difficult to trade, so I don't. I haven't traded for two months. Do you think meditation classes would be the next best thing to try? -- R.J.
In a previous column, I listed several ways I believe meditation may be useful to the trader in knowing his own thoughts and managing his emotions and decision-making. The ability to concentrate is one of these benefits.
You haven't provided enough information to describe exactly what happens when you relapse. If what you mean is that something outside of trading triggers your stress symptoms to the point that you're unable to focus on your trading, meditation alone might not be enough to improve your concentration. In fact, as I explain below, it could make things worse, depending on the type of practice you choose.
If the stress of trading itself triggers your symptoms, how much meditation will help will depend on what you're experiencing besides poor concentration. For example, if you're having flashbacks of the trauma scene and this occurs while you're trading or away from trading, a typical closed-eye meditation practice won't make this go away.
You mentioned you're recovering from a trauma of eight years duration and find that symptoms continue to intrude to the degree that you must refrain from trading for months at a time. With no further information about your condition, my inclination is to tell you to continue further work on the psychological issues with a qualified psychologist. If you can find one who understands the demands of trading, all the better.
While meditation will generally improve your level of concentration for trading and most other activities in life, be warned that it may exacerbate any flashbacks you're having. This is because closed-eyed forms of meditation practice tend to heighten inner imagery. Having your eyes closed and your body still for periods of time makes it easier to notice and focus on inner images.
Since thought associations often are accompanied by fleeting images while meditating, the ability to visualize images clearly and retain these snapshots tends to improve the longer you practice. This is desirable if the images are neutral or positive and you're trying to use them for insight. But it may be counterproductive if you're struggling with traumatic flashbacks, brief dissociative states or acute anxiety as part of your symptoms.
Because of this, my recommendation is that you
engage in a closed-eyed form of meditation practice.
One way you might work around this is to begin by practicing a
slow walking meditation from the Buddhist Vipassana tradition. You'll feel like you're in super-slow motion, and it requires some practice just to keep your balance. The simple instruction is to make a mental note of each movement of your foot, just as you're performing it.
With each step, you would silently note, "lifting" as you lift your foot, "moving" as your foot moves forward and "placing" as your foot touches the ground. This method is a good way to calm yourself and center your awareness on sensation, thereby avoiding flights of mental fantasy, including flashbacks.
A second recommendation, to complement the walking meditation (but only after you're able to stay with it for at least 15 minutes daily for a few weeks) would be to try an open-eyed form of meditation more in the Zen tradition, where the eyes are kept slightly open as you cast your gaze downward toward the floor.
Regardless of whether you try these forms of meditation, you may find that any high-arousal activities, such as trading, will increase the odds of re-experiencing your symptoms.
Because stressful activities may conjure up images from your trauma, consider limiting your trading activity to manageable chunks of time rather than sitting for the whole market session on a daily basis. In addition, during these periods of trading, periodically take deep breaths to help release tension and take short breaks from the monitor.
I would also suggest physical exercise regularly to help cope with your stress and any possible depression. Another nonmeditative aid to concentration would be reading moderately difficult material and trying to stay with it for growing periods of time without a major distraction. You don't mention taking medication, but depending on the severity of your relapses, this might be a useful stress-management tool as well.
Whatever combination of these methods you choose, go into them with your eyes open.
Steven J. Hendlin, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Irvine, Calif. He has been in private practice for the last 26 years, investing for the last 20 years, and actively trading online as a position trader and long-term investor since 1996. He is the author of
The Disciplined Online Investor and maintains a site at www.hendlin.net. He is pleased to receive your comments and questions for publication in his public forum columns at
firstname.lastname@example.org, but please remember that he is unable to provide personal counseling or psychotherapy through the mail.
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