Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger, going on to explain that fear…implies anxiety and usually the loss of courage.” This definition of fear is useful in helping define the issues that traders face when coping with fear. The reality is that all traders feel fear at some level, but the key is how we prepare to address our concerns related to taking on risk as a trader. In this article I will review four major fears experienced by traders, and I’ll take it a step further by noting how the outcomes of these fears create undesirable trading behaviors. Basically, my aim is to have you walk away with an understanding of these dangers so you can and implement strategies that will address your fears and let you get on with your trading plan.
Mark Douglas, an expert in trading psychology, noted in his book, Trading in the Zone, that most investors believe they know what is going to happen next. This causes traders to put too much weight on the outcome of the current trade, while not assessing their performance as “a probability game” that they are playing over time. This manifests itself in investors getting too high and too low and causes them to react emotionally, with excessive fear or greed after a series of losses or wins. As the importance of an individual trade increases in the trader’s mind, the fear level tends to increase as well. A trader becomes more hesitant and cautious, seeking to avoid a mistake. The risk of choking under pressure increases as the trader feels the pressure build.
All traders have fear, but winning traders manage their fear while losers are controlled by it. When faced with a potentially dangerous situation, the instinctive tendency is to revert to the “fight or flight” response. We can either prepare to do battle against the perceived threat, or we can flee from this danger. When an investor interprets a state of arousal negatively as fear or stress, performance is likely to be impaired. A trader will tend to ?freeze.? In contrast, when a trader feels the surge of adrenaline but interprets this as excitement or a state of greater alertness before placing a trade, then performance will tend to improve. Many great live performers talk of feeling butterflies just before they go on stage, and how they interpret this as a wake-up call to go out and perform at their highest level. That’s clearly a more empowering response than someone who might interpret these butterflies as a reason to run back to his dressing room to get sick! Winners take positive action in spite of fear. Read below for tips to conquer the four major fears in trading:
Here are the four major fears in trading, and how you can work to handle them:
1. Fear of Loss
The fear of losing when making a trade often has several consequences. Fear of loss tends to make a trader hesitant to execute his trading plan. This can often lead to an inability to pull the trigger on new entries as well as on new exits. As a trader, you know that you need to be decisive in taking action when your approach dictates a new entry or exit, so when fear of loss holds you back from taking action, you also lose confidence in your ability to execute your trading plan. This causes a lack of trust in your method or, more importantly, in your own ability to execute future trades.
Thus, you can see how fear can set in place a vicious cycle of recurring doubt and, in turn, reinforce a traders’ lack of confidence in executing new positions. For example, if you doubt you will actually be able to exit your position when your method tells you to get the heck out, then as a self-preservation mechanism you will also choose not to get into new trades. Thus begins the analysis paralysis, where you are merely looking at new trades but not getting the proper reinforcement to pull the trigger. In fact, the reinforcement is negative and actually pulls you away from making a move.
Looking deeper at why a trader cannot pull the trigger, I believe the root stems from a lack of confidence about the trading plan, which then causes the trader to believe that by not trading, he is moving away from potential pain as opposed to moving toward future gain. No one likes losses, but the reality is, of course, that even the best professionals will lose. The key is that they will lose much less, which allows them to remain in the game both financially and psychologically. The longer you can remain in the trading game with a sound method, the more likely you will start to experience a better run of trades that will take you out of any temporary trading slumps.
When you’re having trouble pulling the trigger, realize that you are worrying too much about results and are not focused on your execution process. Make sure your have a written plan and then practice executing your plan.
Start with paper trades if you prefer, or consider trading smaller positions to get the fear of losing out of your system and get yourself focused on execution. When in the heat of battle and realizing you need to get in or out of a trade, consider using market orders, especially on the exit. That way you can’t beat yourself up for not pulling the trigger on your trade.
Many traders may get too cute with a trade and try to work out of a position at a limit price better than the current market price, hoping they can squeeze more out of a trade. But as famed trader Jesse Livermore advised in the classic book Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre, “give up trying to catch the last eighth.” Keep it simple with a market order to exit allows you to bring closure when you need it, which reinforces the confidence-building feelings that come from following your trading plan. In the past when my indicators noted it was time to exit, I have experienced firsthand the pain of not getting filled at my limit, watching the option drop and then placing a new limit back where I should have exited at the market in the first place! Then I have realized I was not going to get filled there either, so I again kept lowering my limit until, in frustration, I placed a market order to exit much lower than I could have closed the position initially. Not only can you feel the pain of loss financially but more importantly, you can chip away at your internal state of confidence and create frustration by not getting filled.
You should be more concerned about avoiding big losses and less concerned about taking small losses. If you can’t bear to take a small loss, you will never give yourself an opportunity to be around when a big winning idea comes along, as every trade you enter has the risk of first turning against you for a loss. You must execute by knowing what your risk is in each trade, and define parameters to make sure you can ride favorable trends correctly as well so that your winners will be larger than you losers. And never get stuck in the mindset of hoping a loser will come back to “breakeven,” as that is one of the trader’s most deadly mental fantasies. Billions of dollars have been lost by technology investors hoping their stocks would bounce back in recent years to allow them to escape the downtrend. That only led to even greater losses in most cases. That’s how a short-term trader can become a long-term investor unintentionally, and that is a position in which you never want to put yourself.
Ask how well you trust yourself to execute your trading plan. You want to judge your effectiveness based on how well you get in and out of the market when your method gives entry and exit signals. You’ll need to be decisive, not hesitant, know in your heart that your method is well tested and that your risk is low compared to your likely reward. In other words, you must be fully prepared before you go into the heat of battle during a trading day. You need to know where you will enter and where you will exit if you are a discretionary trader. Or you need to know what system you are following and be prepared to enter and exit as the system dictates. This keeps you disciplined and focused on following a process that can generate favorable results over time.
by Price Headley