Biofeedback for Trader Psychology

(NOTE: This is not an advertisement! It's a report of my first attempts to introduce biofeedback into my trading routine.)

Several weeks ago I advised in the YTC newsletter that I'd bought an emWave2 biofeedback device. My plan was that I'd experiment with it over the following 6-8 weeks and report on it's effectiveness as a state management device for traders.

Quick summary… I like it… and I'm going to keep using it!

trading biofeedback

How I Discovered The emWave2

I'd heard of biofeedback being used by traders before, through the excellent blog posts and books by Dr Brett Steenbarger (see here for all three of his books under the Trading Psychology heading).

But I'd never had any thoughts of experimenting with it myself. The last thing I wanted to do was to be "wired up to a computer" while trading.

Then two months ago I got an email from YTC Price Action Trader reader, Jeff, in which he shared the following article link:

This is quite an interesting article about NFL kicker Billy Cundiff and his use of the portable emWave to place himself into peak physical and mental state prior to performance. This got me interested. And a quick search through Dr Steenbarger's old blog posts and a review of his books, led me to the discovery on page 84 of The Daily Trading Coach that the emWave is the same unit used by Dr Steenbarger himself.

Now I was really curious… and I just had to try one!

What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is the use of instruments to monitor certain components of our physiological state. The components will vary depending on the device, but may include heart rate, brainwaves, muscle tone or skin conductance. The intent is that through awareness of our physiological state we may then take conscious action to either maintain the state, or to place ourselves in an alternate desired state.

What Does the emWave2 Monitor?

The emWave2 monitors your heart rate variability (HRV). The heart rate that you may be familiar with is an average figure, usually expressed in beats per minute. I must admit though that I was surprised to find out how much the heart rate actually varies from beat to beat when we're looking at real-time data rather than an average figure. It cycles in an approximate sine-wave pattern. When relaxed and operating with a peaceful mind our HRV produces a smooth flowing sine curve (evidence of what is termed high coherence). When stressed in either body or mind, the pattern becomes more jagged and disjoint (evidence of what is termed low coherence).

Used as a portable hand-held device the emWave2 provides us with a light display representing our current level of coherence. Or attached to our computer we can also receive a graphical display of our HRV.

That's my layman's understanding anyway. If you want to read an article on the science behind emWave technology and the measure of HRV, you can find it at this link here: http://www.heartmath.com/personal-use/emwave-science-behind.html

How is Biofeedback Relevant to Traders?

Peak performance requires that we place ourselves in (and maintain) our ideal trading state. Typically this is a state of relaxed alertness; mind clear and body relaxed. The emWave2 requires this state in order to display a high level of coherence.

As traders we can therefore use the emWave2 in two ways:

  1. Using it to place ourselves into an ideal trading state prior to commencement of our trading session; and

  2. Using it to monitor our physiological state during the session and to avoid trading when evidence shows us influenced by stress. Relaxation techniques (or a break from trading) may then be used to return to our ideal trading state.

My Evaluation

I started my evaluation sceptical about the validity of the science behind the emWave2 and how accurately it could measure and monitor my physiological state.  In addition, I have long studied relaxation exercises of various types so wasn't sure I'd gain additional benefit from the emWave2 beyond what I was already able to do.

So I put the device to some non-trading tests and my concerns were quickly put to rest.

Experiment showed that I was easily able to consciously move myself in and out of high coherence through adjustment to my physical or mental state. A relaxed body with regular and slow breathing and a clear and calm mind would bring me to high coherence. Tensing my body, holding breath or adopting stressful thoughts and emotions all lead to reducing coherence.

Testing the emWave while trading gave me even greater confidence in the tool. Whenever it identified a drift out of high coherence I was able to pause and consider my physiology. Every time I was able to identify examples of either poor posture or tension, irregular breathing, or mental or emotional stress. More often than not I find I'm simply holding my breath. And Interestingly I find my focus often stuck on the lower timeframe charts. Through identifying this I am able to correct this deficiency.

I now have a high degree of confidence in the accuracy of the machine in distinguishing between ideal and less than ideal trading states.

You'll see in the image below an example of my own HRV while trading relaxed vs trading with stress.

trading biofeedback

trading biofeedback

I do not monitor these graphs while trading. I use the device in a completely portable manner. The emWave2 unit sits on my desk and reads my HRV through an ear sensor. Generally I find this to be quite comfortable and apart from the occasional problem with an itch developing in the sensor area after about 20 mins, I find the sensor does not distract me. The unit has two ways of reporting coherence. One is through lights (green = high, blue = medium, red = low). The other is through a tone which beeps each couple of seconds in high coherence, an alternate tone in medium coherence, and no tone in low coherence. I'd prefer that the tones only beeped when in low coherence. This is the zone I wish to avoid. Having a constant tone when all is working well is distracting. I'd rather only be distracted when the emWave2 has identified a problem.

But this is only a minor criticism. The tones are easily turned off and I choose to use the light display only.

My scan patterns have now been expanded beyond my charts to also include the emWave2 unit. In this way I can constantly monitor my current level of coherence. If it's medium I will simply reset my posture and breathing and usually within 15 seconds it's returned to green. If red, then I'll stop all trading and actively conduct a relaxation session to get back to green. Again this takes only 15-30 seconds at most. This is the key benefit for me – the ability to objectively identify a trend towards low coherence, allowing me to reverse this trend and return quickly to my ideal trading state.

Summary – And Why I Will Continue to Use the emWave2

The emWave2 is not specifically designed for traders. However, like all types of biofeedback machines it does have application in the trading world.

A key part of my trading (and I'd argue a necessary component in the success of all discretionary traders) is to be able to maintain as close as possible to our ideal trading state. Part of this relies on cultivating a clear and calm mind, body and soul. I have for many years used relaxation and breathing techniques for this purpose. And various triggers throughout the trading session to "check" on my current state. Unfortunately though, any "check" of my state has been a rather subjective thing. And it's widely known that a stressed person is less likely to recognise and accept their current state of stress.

The beauty of the emWave2 is that it provides an objective measure of my current state. This is the real value of this tool, in my opinion. I am no longer reliant on subjective assessments. The machine clearly shows when I am not operating with the highest levels of coherence, and I can then take appropriate action to correct this.

While I cannot quantify any improvement to my trading results, I can say that I believe in the application of the emWave2. Whenever it's indicated less than ideal coherence, I have been able to quickly identify where my mind or body are stuck, in either tensed muscles, poor posture, irregular or shallow breathing etc. Correcting these deficiencies does always result in the return of the emWave2 to higher levels of coherence. So the tool does appear to work in the way it's designed.

And if all goes according to plan, a clearer and more relaxed mind and body will lead to improved focus, better decision making and (hopefully) greater profits.

Happy trading,

Lance Beggs


Written by

YourTradingCoach – Admin

22 Comments to “Biofeedback for Trader Psychology”

  1. venugopal says:

    Hi Lance,

    In my opinion, Until we become Professional or Successful Trader, we keep expecting to adopt/use ALL kinds psychology course, CS Patterns, Charting Patterns, Mechanical Indicators etc etc to reach our GOALS (Trader)….. Ultimately Only Candles PRICE ACTION is enough to do well Trading Business we understand….

    Thanking YOU with well wishes.

    • Lance Beggs says:

      Hi Venugopal,

      From one perspective I agree – effective price action analysis is important. However I would like to add that effective analysis requires (a) accurate perception of the market information, (b) understanding of what that means and (c) an ability to infer the impact of this on future orderflow and price movement. All three depend upon the trader. As such, human performance is a VITAL element of our trading business. We must do all we can to place ourselves into a state of peak performance – physically, mentally, emotionally and spirtually. From this perspective, biofeedback can be an effective tool.

    • bart says:

      Hi Lance,
      You first wrote this post 2 years ago on June 8, 2012. Could you please provide a brief update of your experiences and the usefulness of this product for discretionary traders.
      Are you still using emwave2 on a regular basis?
      Has it helped you become a better trader?
      Would you still recommend it?
      Have you tried their new iphone/ipad app Inner Balance?
      Thanks.

      • Lance Beggs says:

        Hi Bart,

        I used the emWave every session for a few months and absolutely loved it. Over time though, I’d forget to charge it and so go without for a session. And gradually it just dropped off the radar. I was “prompted” to pick up this habit again only a few weeks ago when someone sent a link to a TED talk about heart-rate variability (which is what it measures). I’ve used it again for the last few weeks, and again love the device.

        I will say though that all I use it for is it’s ability to alert me to tension or stress within my body, so that I can then return to my own existing relaxation exercises. I don’t use it to regulate my breathing. Or use any of the charting and tracking that it can provide.

        Has it helped my performance? I have no way to quantifiably state whether or not it has added to my edge. All I can say is that I it is the only tool I have found that can visually alert me to the fact that I’ve dropped out of an ideal physical & emotional state; allowing quick return to a more calm and relaxed mind & body. It’s amazing how often I see the red light come on and realise that I’ve been holding my breath! My belief is that it adds value to my trading business. I can’t offer you any quantifable proof though.

        I’ve not heard of Inner Balance, and haven’t researched any of the other similar tools that might be on the market now. But the emWave2… I’ll be using it tonight. And I hope to not fall into lazy habits again by dropping this from my trading routine.

        Cheers,
        Lance

  2. Nathan says:

    Hi Lance:

    Have you used Complete Coherence: Cardio sense trainer? Any views on it?

    http://www.complete-coherence.com/technology/

    Thank you,

    • Lance Beggs says:

      Hi Nathan,

      I haven’t used this system. Just the emWave2 as mentioned in the article. The Complete Coherence system appears to provide the same function though – regulation of breath and tracking of Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

      I’m a big fan of emWave. I can’t really comment on the other though without having tried it.

      Cheers,
      Lance.

      • Nathan says:

        Cool….Great! As long as you have tested and used emWave2 and are a huge fan of it, good for me! Does look like the Complete Coherence system provides the same functionality.

        Here are some videos regarding HRV, from Dr. Alan Watkins, the designer of Complete Coherence which you may like:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q06YIWCR2Js

  3. Futures Operator says:

    Hi Lance, thank you for all the superb material you’ve shared! Plan to purchase your book based on what I’ve read here.

    Would like to ask your thoughts on experiences of people saying the emwave2’s blinking lights can be just random in the review/comments below, and also claims that the research behind it is questionable. Is your experience that it is actually accurate and not random in reading you, or that it helps mostly by reminding to meditate/relax. Thank you!

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1GCYOLK2BUKMD/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B004YHKUX2#R1GCYOLK2BUKMD

    http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/17/heartmath-considered-incoherent/

    • Lance Beggs says:

      Hi Futures Operator,

      All I can offer is my own subjective and potentially biased thoughts, for what it’s worth. Hopefully this will help with your decision.

      The benefit for me though is clear and without doubt. I already have methods of achieving physical relaxation and a calm mind via breathing exercises, through prior experience over several years of Tai Chi and to a lesser degree Chi Gung. This has been very effective in helping me achieve an Ideal Trading State. What I lacked was a quick and efficient method of determining when I had drifted from that state, in order to then increase focus on breathing so that I could return to my ideal state ASAP. The emWave has provided that quick and objective measure that I needed.

      The emWave unit is measuring variability in heart rate. When you take a standard measure of heart rate, it’s really an average figure. If you get told you’re heart rate is currently 85 beats per minute, for example, that is an average figure of 85 across a whole minute. But during that minute it will vary. There will be periods of shorter gaps betwen beats, perhaps indicating 95 or even 100 bpm, and perids where gaps between beats are longer, perhaps indicitive of an average around 75bpm. The emWave is simply providing a measure of that heart-rate variability. This seems to me to be a quite simple measure. So I don’t know why there would be claims of inaccuracy. I really would imagine it’s quite a simple thing to build, with a heart rate sensor and a little bit of software that just charts beat-by-beat measurements rather than just looking for an average figure.

      It’s clearly not random. By hooking up to the desktop display rather than just using the portable unit, I can observe a real-time graph of the heart-rate variability. But placing myself in a calm state I clearly observe a smooth orderly graph. By purposely placing myself in an agitated state I can, every time, see the graph become more erratic. I can move myself back and forth between calm and agitated and see the graph changing in response to my mood, every time.

      So it’s clearly not random.

      As to accuracies of the measurement, as I said before, there’s no way for me to confirm it’s precisely measuring what they claim. But as I also said, it seems that it would be a fairly simple measure to take, so I doubt there would be any reason to falsify it.

      As to accuracies of measurement of “emotional state”, well I can’t think of any way that anyone can measure emotional state. But heart-rate variability does appear from my very-unscientific-personal-use-testing to be highly correlated. So I believe it does offer value in it’s use in trading.

      Any claims of spiritual benefits, which I have heard some people make, just ignore them. Sure, if it helps you achieve a smoother breathing pattern, this may help with meditation. But you’re not going to suddenly achieve enlightenment through hooking up to the unit. This is simply a tool for measurement of heart-rate variability.

      So for me, the fact that I can clearly see that purposeful changing of state shows up in the unit as an indication of change of state, was enough to convince me that the unit had potential to work in the opposite way. That is, an emwave indication of “loss of state” will likely coincide with an actual change of state.

      I don’t use the desktop tool when trading. And I don’t bother with the sliding display of lights on the portable unit. That’s just a “suggested” breathing pattern. I already have my preferred breathing patterns. I simply monitor the green/blue/red indication. When it drops out of green, I pause to observe my state. Usually I will be surprised to see that my focus on the markets has led to physical and emotional changes. Often I realise I’d been holding my breath. And always I’ll realise some state of negative emotion. This is a quick and objective trigger to remind me to breath again. The unit always returns to green within 5-15 seconds of calm and smooth breathing exercise.

      Hope that answers your question. Any links I’ve provided to their site are not an affiliate sales link. I make nothing out of this recommendation. In fact, there could well be newer and better tools available now. I’ve just been using this for a few years now and love it. What does it provide? Simply just a short-term measurement of heart-rate variability. Using that as a proxy for “emotional state” appears through my personal experience to be reasonably well correlated, to the point that I was happy with my purchase and will continue using it for the future.

      Cheers,
      Lance

    • Tom Beckman says:

      For an overview of HeartMath research, including a list of over 240 independent studies and dissertations on HeartMath techniques and technology, see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/impact-heartmath-research-techniques-technology-tom-beckman

  4. Futures Operator says:

    Lance, thank you for your thorough and thoughtful response, you’ve indeed helped me make the decision to try it myself!

    • Lance Beggs says:

      No problems. There could of course be something newer & better since I bought my emWave (about 3 or so years ago I think). So look around first.
      But until I find a better means of objectively alerting me to a potential loss of state… I’m sticking with this one.

  5. Manoj says:

    Hi Lance

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I also began to research emWave from Brett’s book & posts. I have been through all the theta, delta & meditation, spirituality, etc. I am yet to be able to collect a respectable % of what my system says it generated. Specific causes are stop profit (because of n number of handy indicators) and keeping myself out of a trade entry due to either judgement or a lower risk than the market is willing to fill.

    I presume emWave should be able to help me correct the stop profit behavior. I just need to check the coherence graph before exiting a profit position.

    Do you feel the coherence graph will help me get into a trade that I manage to keep myself out of?

    Thanks for your reply and thanks again for sharing your experience with emWave.

    Manoj

    • Lance Beggs says:

      Hi Manoj,

      I really don’t have a lot of information to go from here, but I don’t imagine that the emWave is the right tool for this situation. Do I understand correctly that you’re making early exit decisions (“because of n number of handy indicators“) only to find that over time this is actually damaging your edge rather than adding to it. This doesn’t seem a psych / relaxation issue to me. It seems lack of clarity with regards when you plan to exit and why you plan to exit. Work on your trading plan and understanding the decisions you make during trade management. The problem is more a “lack of clarity” issue… or a “thinking” issue, rather than an emotional reaction.

      But as I said, I really don’t have enough info here to make any valid comments. But it does seem that this is not a psych / emwave issue.

      Best of luck,
      Lance.

  6. Manoj says:

    Hi Lance

    System is very clear about when to exit. Why I usually exit? Lets collect what is available before it is gone. Mine is an intrasession system. After sufficient accumulated profits the urge to take what is available reduces.

    Same with missed entries. System says do it. I say doesn’t look like its gonna work, OK lets wait a while to see if it doesn’t hit the stoploss and then I will enter…but the opportunity (at the same risk) gone.

    I believe this is indiscipline coming in from emotions/stress or the primordial human programming.

    With the emWave2 whenever I get the urge to exit a working profit trade; say I look at my coherence graph and make it a rule that I will exit only if I am in coherent state of mind.

    Same with entries. I check with coherence graph and if it says OK you are in a coherent state, I just enter the orders instead of waiting to see the trade going to target without me in it.

    Are these valid or possible uses of emWave2?

    Thanks & BR
    Manoj

    • Lance Beggs says:

      Hi Manoj,

      The emWave will certainly alert you to a lack of coherence. And breathing exercises will allow you to return to the desired state. I like this as I firmly believe that quality of decision making is improved when the mind/body system is in a calmer state. And of course any performance anxiety is reduced.

      The question is whether or not any negative emotional and physical state is contributing to your inability to follow the system.

      I can’t say. This is simply for you to decide as I have absolutely no insight into the real nature of your current issues.

      All I can say is that in the VAST MAJORITY of cases, when someone says that they have a discipline issue, it’s actually not anything to do with trading psychology. Usually there are other factors. See the first part of this article – http://yourtradingcoach.com/trader/how-can-i-get-more-discipline/

      Certainly, adding a step to your routines requiring that you only take a trade when in a state of high coherence, is unlikely to hurt. But I can’t say whether or not that is the solution you require.

      From your explanation, it seems more a thinking issue rather than an emotional issue. Try “Trade Mindfully” by Gary Dayton first.

      Sorry I can’t help more.

      I love the emWave. But I can’t say whether or not it’s the solution you’re seeking.

      Regards,
      Lance.

  7. Manoj says:

    Hi Lance

    Thanks for your replies. I went back to read biofeedback examples described in Brett’s books. If it works as described in those examples and I trust it does (unitl I have a reverse experience), I am going for it. In fact reading again made me feel this is going to be perpetually useful, because the market needs you to be in shape even after the biggest win.

    Thanks
    Manoj

    • Lance Beggs says:

      Hi Manoj,

      Dr Brett seems to have found great value in biofeedback. So have I. I hope you find the same benefits.

      I still highly recommend Gary Dayton’s book as well.

      Cheers,
      Lance

  8. Manoj says:

    After 2 more days of researching using biofeedback for practising/improving trading it looks like HRV or pulse is better suited for athletes; GSR is better suited to mental stress; maybe GSR can be extended with HRV and/or EEG for trading. A GSR combined with an AVS or light/sound or mind machine looks perfect because the GSR or sensor signals activate the AVS with suitable audio video so one is spared with having to call up slowed breathing and/or joy and/or imagery freeing up the mind to focus on the trade. Yes the video can be an intrusion. Let me see how this works out. Researching so much about biofeedback already seems to be bringing some trade discipline into me.

    I hope I don’t get better ideas after more research. Just adding here in case it helps others in my situation.

    Thanks
    Manoj

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