Executive Dysfunction Is a Mental Health Issue

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Your to-do list is brimming with tasks for work and home. You need to get that report written for your boss, and there’s a pile of small jobs around the house. Maybe you even wake up in the morning with a plan to get it all done. Then, you sit down at your desk, open the report and decide to check your email quickly before getting started. Before you know it, you’ve spent two hours reading through recipes for Holiday desserts, and it’s time to pick your kids up from school. Another day where you got nothing done. You can’t believe you’re so lazy.

Or, maybe it isn’t laziness. When you struggle with task completion, time management, or getting started on significant tasks, laziness is often not the reason. Executive dysfunction causes trouble with self-regulation and goal-directed behaviors and can look like laziness. 

In addition to completing tasks, executive dysfunction signs include strong emotional reactions and impulsivity. Executive dysfunction is a frequent symptom of many mental health conditions. This blog will define executive dysfunction and give you tips for managing it. With the proper support, you can manage symptoms of executive dysfunction and find ways to reduce its impact on your life.

What Is Executive Dysfunction?

Executive dysfunction is an impairment in one or more circuits of the brain. People may struggle with one or more of the following.

  • The circuit that controls working memory for things like planning, goal setting, and sequential steps for completing tasks.
  • The circuit for prioritizing activities and addressing timelines.
  • The circuit that controls emotions and the link between what you think about and how you feel.
  • The circuit that controls self-awareness of your feelings and experiences.
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If you struggle with executive function, it can affect your life at home, work, and even your relationships. Executive functioning skills are the skills that help people analyze, plan, organize, and schedule tasks as well as complete them. It’s common for everyone to struggle with one area of executive functioning from time to time. For people with executive function disorder, however, the problem interferes with their daily life.

People with executive function disorder often struggle with handling frustration, self-monitoring during long-term projects, and balancing competing demands (such as home and work responsibilities). If you have trouble with executive functioning, you may experience

  • Difficulty planning for future events
  • Trouble completing a series of actions to meet long-term goals.
  • An inability to organize materials or set schedules and priorities.
  • Difficulty with the self-control of emotions or impulses.
  • Trouble analyzing or processing information.
  • Trouble with self-regulation and goal-directed behaviors.
  • Problems with working memory which make it difficult to remember things.
  • A lack of cognitive flexibility causing difficulty in problem-solving, adjusting to new situations, or handling interruptions.
  • Poor inhibition control leads to substance abuse, impulsive decision-making, overeating, and other problem behaviors.

Even if you experience every symptom of executive dysfunction and feel like there’s no way out with the right tools and support, you can learn to improve executive function skills to build the life you want. The first step is to identify the cause of your executive function.

Common Causes Of Executive Dysfunction

Executive dysfunction is a common symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and is often genetic. However, it can also result from traumatic brain injury, severe trauma, and diseases and conditions that impact the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for thinking, planning, organization, decision-making, and monitoring social behavior. In addition to ADHD, brain injury, and trauma, the following conditions can change the prefrontal cortex or impair its function.

  • Exposure to drugs or alcohol in vitro
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
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Thankfully the human brain has a property called neuroplasticity. The brain can heal and change, so proper interventions can reverse prefrontal cortex damage or dysfunction. Finding out the cause of your executive function deficits begins with a visit to your healthcare provider to find out if there are any medical causes of your struggles.

Many people with executive function issues find it helpful to work with a psychotherapist skilled at cognitive behavioral therapy. In addition to therapy, there are plenty of strategies for improving executive function you can try on your own.

Tips to Cope With Executive Dysfunction

Effectively managing executive dysfunction is often a combination of medical interventions and developing a cache of strategies that work for you. The following tips are organized into categories of executive dysfunction. Choose the ones that work best for you.

Tips for Procrastination, Task Organization, and Completion

  • Talk about the steps needed to complete a task out loud (yes, even if you’re by yourself). For folding laundry, you might say, “Stand up, walk to the dryer, put the clothes in the basket, pick the basket up, walk to the couch, and fold one piece of laundry.”
  • Identify a starting place. It doesn’t have to be the beginning of the task. Suppose you have to send a report to your boss and start drafting the email before you write the report. Start anywhere.
  • Break the task into smaller steps and celebrate completing each one. If you have trouble paying bills, write a list, including gather, open envelopes, put them in order, pay household bills, pay car bills, etc. Then, as you work through the list, cross each item off.
  • Planning ahead as much as possible makes it easier to be on time in the morning and remember everything you need. Pack your bag, lay out your clothes, and even prepare breakfast the night before so you’re more likely to remember your wallet when you leave the house.
  • Ask for help from family and friends. Sending a text message saying, “I have to finish an assignment, but I don’t know where to start,” can feel intimidating, but everyone struggles with getting things done on occasion, and your loved ones may give you just the right starting place so you can move through the task.

Tips For Forgetfulness and Inattention

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  • Set reminders and use a calendar for everything. Kids’ school schedules, holidays, birthdays, reminders to buy presents for a birthday, put all of it in your phone calendar, set reminders to go off periodically, and write it on a dry-erase calendar in your office or home.
  • Take notes and organize your thoughts before responding in conversations. Executive functioning issues can impact your ability to read social cues and make you prone to interrupting. Writing your thoughts down gives you a way to get them out of your brain, so you don’t interrupt. Before responding, take a moment to collect your thoughts and form a response.
  • Partner things you need to remember with things you do as part of an everyday routine. If you need to remember to drop a package off at the post office, put it on the front seat of your car. Do you need to remember to call the doctor in the morning? Put a post-it note on your toothbrush or computer.

Tips For Regulating Emotions and Impulsivity

  • Getting enough sleep can help keep your emotions from taking over your thoughts and can help you slow down your brain to avoid impulsivity.
  • Practice mindfulness activities such as meditation, yoga, journaling, and breathing exercises.
  • Exercise every day. Exercise improves cognitive function, improves your mood, and reduces impulsivity,
  • Use self-check questions to slow yourself down, such as: Is this behavior good for me? How might this affect my relationships/job/goals? Is this something that I can undo?

Executive Dysfunction Is a Mental Health Issue

executive function skills

When you struggle to complete tasks, plan for the future, and engage with others, your mental health can suffer. Since executive functioning issues often go along with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, many people wind up in a cycle where their mental health problems worsen executive functioning. The worse their symptoms get, the more trouble they have managing their mental health.

A therapist or psychiatrist can help you identify the cause of your executive dysfunction and take steps to improve your symptoms. You’ll learn about how medications could help your symptoms, identify which parts of executive function are your biggest struggles, and learn strategies you can use at school, work, and home.Executive dysfunction can affect people of all ages, genders, and all walks of life. At SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services, we have providers specializing in all ages and demographics. We even offer services in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Reach out to our office today to get matched with a provider who will partner with you to create a life that honors your uniqueness and helps you overcome challenges.

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