Through nearly ten years of writing for Option Investor, I have meet article deadlines despite surgeries, the births of grandchildren and many other happy or worrisome occasions. However, on September 4, winds howled through Central Texas all day. That afternoon, I heard my husband make a strange sound. I found him standing in front of the sliding glass doors that framed a scenic view of the low hills that surround the shallow valley in which our subdivision sits. He had spotted the first dark plumes of smoke that had appeared on the ridge above us. With our entire area decimated by record drought and record numbers of days of triple-digit temperatures, the fire roared in a southward direction with horrifying speed. Over the next twenty-four hours, twenty subdivisions would be evacuated. Already in those first moments before my husband leaped into action, to try to get to a friend's house, and I ran to call friends to tell them to get out quickly, houses were burning and lives changing. Good friends lost their house and their pets in the first hour. Other goods friends lost their houses by nightfall that first day, but still the fire continued.
Our small town has only 8,300 residents and the entire county, about 74,000. Out of that population, more than 1,500 homes were lost in a voracious fire that destroyed a state park, decimated another two parks and virtually wiped out many subdivisions. A huge proportion of our community's residents was evacuated from their homes. Although our house had served as a safe haven for burned-out friends the first twenty-four hours, we were soon to find state troopers speeding down our streets, too, telling us to get out. We've been lucky. Our house survived.
As of Friday, September 16, 2011, the fire was 75 percent contained and had destroyed 34,068 acres. Flare-ups continue with smoldering trees so prevalent that county residents are asked not to report smoldering trees unless they're threatening a structure. Stories abound of people fleeing from fire that had already leaped across trees to their house, of pets who ran away as their owners attempted to load them into cars, not to be seen again. Neighbors are housing, feeding and clothing other neighbors. We have pulled together as a community and many have offered help from outside the community, too, but the community has been dealt a terrible blow.
Photo by Carol Miller, posted on "Bastrop Fire":
Photo by Deanna Roy, Taken from the west side of Austin, approximately 40 miles away, on the first day of the fire:
What does this have to do with options trading? Quite a lot, it turns out. As Steven Gail, editor and writer for the Monthly Cash Machine Newsletter, wrote, "losses in life far outweigh losses in the market." Such events beg us to examine our priorities. We in our small community were asked to evaluate, sometimes with only a few moments to spare, what was important to us. We all decided family, friends, and pets were more important than things.
Some of you have been experiencing fires raging through your trading accounts, too, as markets became increasingly volatile over recent months. Market behaviors of the last few months have may have ravaged your accounts, changing your family's financial prospects for the near-term and, sometimes, long-term future.
Yet, I would urge you to take some lessons from those in my community who have experienced a literal fire. If I have heard one sentence more frequently than any other, it's the following sentence, usually spoken as the speaker waves a hand back toward a concrete slab covered in heaps of ashes: "That was just stuff."
Perhaps it's the shared experience that helps victims of this wildfire to face their losses. They comfort each other. People from neighboring and far-flung communities alike have rushed in to provide what help they can. They talk to each other about their experiences, they're interviewed on television and for newspaper articles, and the more stoic ones complain about being waylaid by grief counselors who confront them in front of Best Buy, not letting them walk away until they confess their sadness.
Traders who have lost money often are going it alone. Sometimes shame and complicity in the loss prohibit them from telling others what they're experiencing and seeking comfort. They don't feel they deserve comfort. Other traders might be willing to comfort them, to offer a figurative arm around their shoulder or to confront them about the emotional impact of what has happened, but they may not know other traders.
You may be thinking that victims of the fire feel no sense of responsibility, as do those of you who have lost money in the markets, bearing some responsibility as you do for the choices that led to those losses. However, you would be wrong. People in our community have expressed guilt because they weren't home when the fires broke out and couldn't rescue pets or perhaps they collected their pets and ran with them to the car, only to find that their dogs and cats reverted to their instincts and ran away, attempting to escape the fire in the way nature had taught them to do. Victims may have packed up costume jewelry and forgotten grandmother's wedding ring. They may have seen the smoke but not believed themselves in danger, so that they were relegated to getting themselves into the car and leaving everything behind when fire was already exploding pine trees in their yards.
We humans have a unique ability to find ways to blame ourselves. Traders sadly must sometimes acknowledge that they do bear some responsibility, perhaps akin to a person who thought it wise to wait a few more minutes to evacuate only to find that the fire was moving far faster than could be anticipated or imagined unless one had previously been caught in such a fire. Even firefighters from other areas who rushed in to help said that they had never seen a fire move so quickly or burn so voraciously. The markets have had periods of historic volatility lately, and inexperience with such conditions may have led some traders to mistake the voraciousness with which market conditions could destroy their accounts.
I did not lose my house. However, because our vantage point allowed us to see the fires and the speed with which they were moving, I spent frantic minutes on the phone calling friends and telling them to get out while my husband attempted to get to the home of out-of-town friends to rescue their trapped cats. Fours sets of those friends evacuated to our house and we watched for twenty-four hours, seeing plumes of smoke prove that another structure had succumbed to the fire. A granddaughter was visiting and, when we, too, were evacuated, we had to find a safe route to get her and our pets out. A few days after we were allowed re-entry, I needed to run an errand. I couldn't do it: I couldn't bear to leave my dogs alone in the house knowing that the fires are not contained and that fire danger remained. I find myself standing in front of the sliding glass doors that gave us that spectacular view of the fires roaring across the hillsides, and "come to" thirty minutes later, realizing that I've been standing there all that time. When one of the frequent flare-ups occurred and a plume of smoke rose on a hillside, I started packing up again although no further structures have been burned in the last few days.
Just witnessing the destruction, along with thinking for a few hours that our house had actually been lost, too, was enough to produce these slight signs of trauma. Many traders might be impacted by witnessing what's going on in the markets or learning of losses their friends might have experienced, too.
If any in my community are reading this, I am not minimizing what you have experienced by comparing it to the experiences of traders. Rather I am instead pointing out that the money we lose in trading is "just stuff" after all. People are more important, as anyone in my community could tell you. However, I also want to acknowledge that our trading decisions, combined with rabid market action, can produce trauma, too.
The Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management has published "Ten Tips for Effective Stress Management from the www.samhsa.gov site. I thought these tips might be helpful for traders whose accounts have been ravaged or who are frightened by current market behavior.
Familiarize yourself with signs of stress.
Get enough rest, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy diet.
Have a life outside your job.
Avoid tobacco, alcohol, drugs and excessive caffeine.
Draw strength from faith, friends, and family.
Maintain your sense of humor.
Have a personal preparedness plan.
Participate in training offered at your workplace.
Get a regular physical checkup.
Ask for help if you need it.
Since we're addressing trading, your personal preparedness plan should include some kind of checklist that will allow you to assess when you need to pack up and evacuate the trading scene. If markets are moving a certain number of standard deviations over a certain period of time, is that too much danger for you to handle? If you've lost more money than you anticipated losing in one or two trades, is the fire creeping too close to your property, and do you need to take steps to lower the fire danger? If you've been reading my articles for a while, you know that I've recently been feeling that the trading conditions were a bit too dangerous, so I've been temporarily cutting back on trading. I evacuated the trading scene a couple of weeks before I evacuated my house. I have no October iron condors, as I would usually already have. I hope to re-enter soon but I want to be sure the environment is conducive to my kind of trading before I do.
One of our friends lives in a subdivision that suffered the worst decimation. Only a few houses survived in that subdivision. It was this house to which my husband attempted to go that first day, to rescue their cats. My husband was stopped on the highway by state troopers who wouldn't let him pass, and we all thought his house and pets were gone.
That house also survived, one of those few in that area to survive. Two weeks before the fire, our friend had hired a firm to clean the gutters and roof of pine needles. Firefighters told him that once a fire threatened a house, the house with a cleaned roof and gutters was more likely to survive than one cluttered with flammable debris. Make sure that your trading plan is one that recognizes the various threats to your trading success, either physical, mental or from outside forces, and that you clear the flammable stuff away before the fire hits. Recognize when to get yourself and your trades out of danger. And, if fire still overcomes you, remember that you and your family are what matters. Not stuff.