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Executive Dysfunction’s Relation to Mental Health

What is Executive Dysfunction?

While it may sound like it, executive dysfunction is not a mental disorder within itself, but rather a behavioral symptom that affects one’s mental health by causing disruptions in one’s ability to maintain their thoughts, actions, and decisions. It alters one’s executive functioning, including their memory, cognitive flexibility (the brain’s ability to adjust between different concepts), and inhibition control (the ability to suppress impulsive responses and approach situations with reasoning). Examples of behaviors displaying executive dysfunction include being easily distracted from basic tasks, excessive daydreaming or zoning out, difficulty gaining motivation to begin tasks, and struggling with impulse control. While executive dysfunction is generally a symptom of cognitive disorders such as Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or Autism spectrum disorder, it can also be connected to mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder (BPD). 

Executive dysfunction may just seem like a fancier term for procrastination, but it certainly isn’t. Procrastination takes place when someone makes a conscious decision to put off a task, and may be a response due to laziness or lack of caring. Executive dysfunction is when the part of one’s brain that is in control of someone’s motivation levels is unable to cooperate with the part of their brain that plans out and allows the person to execute the task. For this reason, someone may care a lot and feel extremely motivated to complete something but because they aren’t in proper control of their executive functions, they simply can’t get themselves to do it.

“I spent over three decades of my life believing that I was deeply, incurably lazy and hating myself over it. Till this last year, I’d never heard of executive dysfunction, nor gave myself permission to view this severe lack of get-up-and-go as a disorder and not a personal flaw.”

“....I have sat for days getting more and more frustrated with myself but physically unable to bring myself to do a task I desperately wanted to do. The want is there, strongly there, but my ability to follow through on that wish is utterly absent. It’s a misfire in the brain that fails to translate willpower into action.”

Heather E. , from Medium

...Because of this, executive dysfunction has been one of the biggest challenges in my life. People have always called me lazy and unmotivated, but actually, I’m pretty motivated. I just have a mental illness that stops me from being like every other teenager. It’s almost like “writer’s block,” but longer lasting and not just for writing, but for my whole life. My executive dysfunction (at least the diagnosis of it) has taught me more about myself. These experiences has shaped the person I am today and will help me to overcome future challenges.”

Katie Guttenburg, from WordPress

How Do Mental Illnesses Cause Executive Dysfunction?

There are many different types of causes for executive dysfunction, especially from a variety of mental disorders. For example, the loss of energy and interest in basic everyday activities can easily be connected to having executive dysfunction as these characteristics easily relate to having a lack of motivation and drive to get tasks done, one of the most primary factors of executive dysfunction. Another example is bipolar disorder. An individual with this disorder may face executive dysfunction when they’re experiencing mania by being completely unable to focus on a singular field of interest. On the flip side, this same individual can also experience having no motivation to do anything, even the most simple chores, once they’ve reached the depressive phase of their disorder. People who have unhealthy addictions, such as drug and/or alcohol addictions, are also likely capable of struggling with executive dysfunction, whether they’re dealing with any outside mental illnesses or not. In conclusion, it’s not uncommon for many people to have executive dysfunction during some point in their lives, no matter the severity of their mental unwellness and what mental disorder(s) they may be challenged with.

How You Can Combat Executive Dysfunction:

Once you can identify that you or someone you know has it, you may realize that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to get rid of. However, there are multiple ways the symptoms of it can be lessened and can be prevented from becoming worse. Here are some ideas:

  • Getting a Prescribed Medication → Especially if you’re already aware you or the person you know has a diagnosed mental illness, the stimulants in medications such as antidepressants or antipsychotics can lessen symptoms related to executive dysfunction.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy → This can be very helpful and effective in understanding how to fix problems with inhibition, managing time and emotions, and learning how to plan out tasks in ways that allow someone to successfully be productive. 

  • Completing Tasks in Small Time Increments → By starting off with more simple tasks that only take about 5-10 minutes, a tolerance for being productive can slowly be developed more and more overtime, eventually allowing someone to take on more complex tasks for much longer.

  • Explore Different Ways to Stay Organized →There are many, many ways someone can be able to maintain organization of their plans and ideas, such as calendars (digital or on-paper), planners/agenda books, checklists, journaling, and so much more. Experiment with a variety of organization methods and find out what works best!




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