Saturday, January 13, 2007

Brief Therapy for the Mentally Well: Programming Our Own Experience

A bit over a week ago, I described short-term applications of psychology as "therapy for the mentally well". The goal of such work is to make positive changes, not necessarily eradicate pre-existing deficits. For that reason, the first step in the change process is having a vision of the changes you wish to make. By linking these positive changes to distinctive emotional, physical, and cognitive states, we are able to become the play-actors of our ideals.

Allow me to expand on a metaphor I used in the Psychology of Trading book. Consciousness is like a radio dial, and we operate on many frequencies. Each spot on the radio dial is a particular state: a blending of our experience of our bodies and minds. The test anxious student has a spot on their dial that combines negative thinking, increased arousal, shallow and rapid breathing, and diminished access to retained information. Other spots on the dial may combine much more positive thinking, alert concentration, erect posture, and fuller breathing. When operating at those frequencies, the student has full access to the information studied and performance on the test is excellent. What we know and who we are is relative to the frequencies of consciousness at which we're operating.

The problem is not that some of the spots on our personal radio dials are programmed with negativity. Rather, the problem is that we lack full, intentional control over the dial itself. We change stations, so to speak, without intending to. What the brief therapies accomplish is a greater control over selecting our own frequencies: they give us a hand to turn our dials. The idea, after all, is to become our own trading coach: to develop our own ability to reach our goals.

What creates the "radio stations" that make up our dial of consciousness? Two things: repeated experience that becomes habit patterns and powerful emotional experience that is processed as a trauma. Just as some radio stations on our car radio dials are faint and others generate a powerful signal, some of our states are weak and some dominate the dial. The more repeated the experience--and the more powerful the experience--the more it becomes part of your spectrum of consciousness.

As I emphasized in the Enhancing Trader Performance book, one reason so many traders fail is that they create repeated, negative emotional experiences for themselves. Indeed, this is why I included self-help manuals for cognitive and behavioral change techniques as two chapters within the book. Quite simply, traders can find themselves operating on frequencies that they don't want to be experiencing: their dials change without their consent or control. And all it takes to shift our frequencies of consciousness, very often, is a simple shift in one element of our frequency: a few negative thoughts, a change in our patterns of posture or breathing, a fleeting emotion. Those become triggers that diminish our control over our own experience.

While the aforementioned cognitive and behavioral techniques are extremely valuable, it is also important to be able to program our own new, enhanced spots on our dials of consciousness. The way to do this is to rehearse positive patterns of thought and behavior while you are in a distinctive emotional and physical state. This is one of the quickest and most reliable ways to generate change.

For instance, let's say your desired behavior is to hold onto winning trades longer. You might mentally rehearse market scenarios of holding onto trades--emphasizing how excited, happy, and profitable you'll be by achieving this goal--while you are pushing yourself during a strenuous treadmill exercise. By setting the treadmill at an incline and a good speed, you will be jogging at a brisk pace and elevating your heart rate. With repetition, you will begin to associate the goal--and its emotional benefits--with your body's pumped up state. It will become an increasingly powerful signal on your radio dial. Then, before trading and during trading breaks, all you have to do is get back on the treadmill. Triggering your body's shift in state will trigger the desired shift on your dial of consciousness. You will access the behavior you desire by intentionally triggering the cues associated with the behavior.

Making changes entails far more than simply engaging in positive thinking or getting positive images in your head. If you don't change your state of consciousness--and your ability to shift your own consciousness--you'll be listening to the same programming day after day. Learning how to shift out of negative states is a huge achievement. Where dramatic growth occurs, however, is in learning how to create new, positive states: in becoming the programmers of our own experience.