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  • Writer's pictureBrian Lissak

Peak Performance Training: Biofeedback at the Trading Desk

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

I recently worked with a stock trader, whom I'll call 'Joe' to protect his privacy. He was having difficulty managing his stress levels as the market fluctuated, causing him to make very bad and very costly decisions. We used biofeedback and a clear, functional understanding of the neurophysiology of stress to get him back on track.

A good trader will show up to their desk well before the market opens, have a clear plan for the day, and then execute on that plan. Inevitably, things don’t always go according to plan - markets are organic things, after all - and you need to make quick decisions. Joe is a diligent trader. Here's what his morning looked like when we started working together:

At 7:30 am Joe would get to his desk, formulate and finalize his plan for the day, conferencing with the other traders around him.

At 9:15 am his heart rate would quicken, his vision would constrict, and his breathing would become shallow.

At 9:30 am, as the market's opening bells would ring, Joe would essentially have a panic attack.

This happened every day for Joe.

9:30-10:00 am is known as ‘the wash,’ a time period when the market is typically pretty volatile. Joe would be in an extreme stress state, ‘fight or flight,’ for the duration of the wash, with his heart rate effectively mirroring the stock ticker on the screen in front of him.

Being in a stress state, ‘fight or flight,’ is the worst possible neurophysiological state to make well formulated decisions. In this state, your body is perceiving an existential threat. In response to that perceived threat, your body pares down all of its activity to be hyper efficient at one thing: survival.

Physiologically, your breath moves from your stomach to your chest to facilitate physical exertion, like fighting or fleeing. Your heart rate increases, sweat glands open up, and adrenaline starts pumping in preparation for the life-or-death struggle which is assumed to be imminent.

The blood in your extremities is shunted back to your core and trunk because you don’t need fine articulation of your fingers in a life-or-death struggle - you need raw power in your legs and torso.

Neurologically, the rational part of your brain is essentially shut off, as its thought processes are too slow for the type of instinctual reaction needed to survive. Your ‘lizard brain’ becomes your entire brain as you only need to react and react quickly to save your life.

This is the wrong neurophysiological script to be running if you want to make smart choices. This is the state Joe would be in every morning at the most critical time.

Obviously, Joe wasn’t choosing to be in that state. But neither could he choose to get out of it. That’s where biofeedback came in, specifically Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Biofeedback. Without getting bogged down in the technicalities, HRV refers to the variation in heart rate from beat to beat. This happens because we have two main components to our nervous system: “fight/flight”, which I mentioned above, and “rest/digest.”

“Rest/digest” is essentially the balanced opposite of “fight/flight.” In a healthy state, both are online in alternating rhythms, activated by the breath, making your heart rate look like a nice coherent Sine wave. When you have full spectrum access to your nervous system, you can be simultaneously calm and alert/focused. This is the ideal state to be in during most of our lives, and especially during “the wash.” HRV Biofeedback training gives you the ability to train your nervous system to be more coherent, resilient in the face of stress, and responsive to your will.

I taught Joe HRV biofeedback training, which he did diligently every workday for 10 minutes via a heart rate monitor specifically designed for HRV training. He did this with a group of guys in his office, who all integrated HRV Biofeedback into their process. After about 6 weeks of HRV training, Joe had the ability to consciously down regulate his stress response and restore rational brain function. His nervous system was more robust and responsive and also less likely to have such high anxiety spikes. That’s when I joined him at his desk for a few mornings.

Here’s how it would go: Joe would walk me through his plan for the day, which is essentially an exercise in logic (remember, this requires a calm nervous system state where you have access to the rational brain). Then at 9:15 am, as he would begin to feel and display signs of anxiety, he would do 5-10 minutes of HRV biofeedback training, re-regulating his nervous system to a calm, coherent state. He would keep the monitor attached to him (it clips to the earlobe inconspicuously and looks like a Bluetooth earphone) with the app open on his phone. Whenever he felt himself getting too stressed to function properly, or I noticed him in that state, I would direct him to do 30-90 seconds of HRV training, breaking the stress feedback loop and allowing him to restore his rational brain.

Over the course of a few days, Joe was able to learn how to notice these signs in himself, needing my input less and less and able to keep himself regulated throughout “the wash.” He was able to be less reactive, stick to his plan, receive and give input with the traders around him, and, most importantly, not make really dumb, costly mistakes.

Joe continues to prep for the day with a short HRV training round at 9:15, and wears the device throughout the first hour. Over time this will compound, teaching his nervous system deeper and more resonant states of calm as he untrains the maladaptive stress response and introduces the calm coherence necessary to succeed in his work.

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