Addictive Trading
Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D.
What I love most about trading is that it exercises the brain and the will. It involves ongoing analysis and problem solving, and it requires the steady development of performance-based skills. I'm sure serious players of chess and poker enjoy similar benefits. Talk to any successful athlete and you'll find someone who has cultivated themselves, not just their bodies.

There are times, however, when trading becomes a vehicle for destroying mind and soul. You won't hear brokerage firms, trading publications, or seminar producers talking much about this problem, because their common aim is to keep the public trading and buying trading-related products. But, as someone who has worked with many independent traders and traders at firms, I've seen this problem far too often: trading becomes an addictive activity.

Oh yes, trading coaches and psychologists will talk about losing "discipline", but rarely will they use the "A" word. Discipline you work on, addictions you get rid of. If you get rid of a trading addiction, there goes the trading coach.

Many times, however, losses of discipline in the markets are related to addictive patterns of behavior.

An addiction occurs when an activity provides a strong source of stimulation that, over time, leads to psychological and sometimes physical dependence. We generally label a behavior as an addiction when people seek out the activity even in the face of demonstrable negative consequences. It is the inability to stop the activity when those consequences interfere with life that marks any addiction.

Let's look at the facts:

* According to research cited by the National Council on Problem Gambling, 2 million adults (1% of the population) meet the diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling. Another 4-8 million adults (2-4% of the population) can be considered problem gamblers who are experiencing direct problems as a consequence of gambling.

* Research in psychology and psychiatry reported in the Oxford Textbook of Psychopathology finds that between 14 and 16 million Americans meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence. Between 4-6 million Americans are dependent upon illegal drugs.

* Rates of substance abuse among men ages 18-44 are double those of the general population.

* A family history of addictive problems is one of the best predictors of risk for addiction. Peer influence is another significant risk factor.

* According to a research review in the Oxford Textbook, rates of depression are significantly higher among people with addictions than in the general population, with indications that people are using the addictive activities to medicate themselves for the pain of depression.

* Addictions are also most common among individuals with attention deficits and hyperactivity problems and appear to be related to sensation-seeking among those needing stimulation.

Even if we assume that traders do not have more frequent addictive behaviors than the general population, the statistics tell us that, in all likelihood, nearly one trader in every ten has a diagnosable addictive problem.
So what can we do about the issue?

The first step in dealing with any addictive pattern is identifying it--and identifying it as a problem. Here are a few questions that you might ask yourself:

* Have there been times when I told myself to stop trading, but still found myself placing trades any way?

* Do I find myself overtrading by putting on positions with too large size or by trading during periods when nothing is happening?

* Have my trading losses created problems for me in my relationship(s), or have they caused financial problems for me?

* Have people close to me told me that I need to stop trading?

* Is the pain from losing more extreme than the satisfaction from winning?

* Do I find my moods fluctuating with my P/L?

* Do I trade simply out of boredom sometimes?

* Do I find myself preoccupied with trading outside of market hours at the cost of other work and relationships?

Notice that, for many of these questions, you could substitute the word "drinking" or "gambling" for "trading". The dynamics of addictions are the same across the board. If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, I would suggest that trading has become a problem for you.

How does one deal with addictive trading? The first step is to identify it, but the second--and harder--step is to acknowledge that you need help for it. It's pride that tells us we can handle it on our own through will power, but addictions wouldn't occur in the first place if will power were sufficient to prevent consequences.

Telling yourself you can manage your own addiction is itself a form of denial.

That is why a key step in Alcoholics Anonymous is acknowledging that you are powerless against alcohol.

That is why AA substitutes mutual support for drinking and advocates abstinence as a goal.

Through books, self-help groups, and counseling, you learn to identify the thought and behavior patterns that drive your addictive behaviors. You also learn to identify cravings in advance and channel these in productive directions.

Most of all, you regain a measure of control over your life and end the negative consequences of the addiction.

If you find yourself unable to control your trading and you find the emotional, financial, and social consequences mounting, that's not a passion for trading. It's an addiction.

Do the right things:

1) Close your account.

2) Get help.

Do it for you, your finances, and your loved ones.  Exchange addiction for control.  It'll be the best trade you ever made.
Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D. has been actively involved in the financial markets since the late 1970s.  He has served as Director of Trader Development for Kingstree Trading, LLC in Chicago and currently consults with a number of professional trading organizations.  He is also Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY.  A clinical psychologist and active trader, writer, and researcher for the past 20 years, Brett is the author of Enhancing Trader Performance (Wiley, 2006); The Psychology of Trading (Wiley; 2003); and numerous articles on trading psychology for print and online financial publications.
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