Understanding Executive Dysfunction: Symptoms, Causes, And How To Cope
Executive functioning is the skills that help you retain memory, pay attention, remember sensory inputs, and even regulate emotions. While not a formal diagnosis, executive dysfunction is a term that can help describe a range of behavioral and cognitive challenges including memory, attention, and thinking.
Your executive functioning skills develop when you’re around 2 years old and keep a steady development during the pre-school years as well as teenage and early adulthood.
Executive function is an important part of your brain development; however, executive dysfunction can be as detrimental. When I say executive dysfunction, I refer to the challenges in developing the above-listed functions (memory, attention, and thinking) or having difficulty using these skills.
Let’s explore more about what executive dysfunction is, what you need to look out for, what causes executive dysfunction, and how you can treat this condition.
What Does Executive Dysfunction Mean?
Executive functions are important in our early development and can become an important part of our cognitive as well as behavioral development too, later in life. There are two types of executive functioning; one is organization and the second is regulation.
Organization skills are used to pay attention to details, plan, strategize, and even solve problems. You use these skills when you engage in abstract thinking. Regulation skills, on the other hand, are what you use to regulate your behaviors and emotions. You use these skills to control your thoughts, reason, make decisions, and even control impulses.
Sometimes, executive dysfunction can be called EFD or executive functioning disorder, however, it isn’t the correct term for an official diagnosis.
Let me give you some examples of executive skills you use in your day-to-day life;
- When you “go with the” to match the changes in your life
- When you remember to take your things with you from work each day
- When you recall your grocery list from memory
- When you can follow complex instructions easily
- When you plan and execute a project
Symptoms Of Executive Dysfunction
Not everyone’s executive function skills develop in the same way and this may result in varying symptoms from person to person;
Some common executive dysfunction symptoms can include;
- Frequently losing important papers or other documents
- Difficulty managing time, making plans, or even sticking to a routine
- Often forgetting tasks and appointments
- Difficulty starting tasks even if you want to
- Not being able to keep your workplace your house organized
- Not being able to navigate frustrating situations or even setbacks
- Difficulty controlling your impulses, emotions, mood swings, and behaviors
- Trouble putting thoughts or abstract ideas into words
- Frequent loss of concentration
- Tendency to not understand basic social norms
- Chronic procrastination or low motivation
- Difficulty tuning back into focus after a distraction
What Causes Executive Dysfunction?
When we talk about what causes executive dysfunction, there could be various contributing factors. One reason is that executive dysfunction happens because of irregular development in the brain, especially in the frontal lobe.
Another reason could be an imbalance in the brain chemicals such as noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. These brain differences could also cause other mental and physical health conditions that executive dysfunction could be a symptom of.
Mental and physical health conditions where executive dysfunction can be found can include;
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Conduct disorder
- Schizophrenia Spectrum
- Learning disorders
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Substance use disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Chronic stress
- Sleep disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder,
However, executive dysfunction isn’t always a symptom of a mental health condition. Sometimes, a traumatic brain injury, especially to the frontal lobe of the brain, can cause damage to executive functioning. The frontal lobe is responsible for behavior, learning, thinking, planning, and organizing.
Some studies also show that executive dysfunction could be genetic or can be passed down from a family member with the same.
If we talk about the diagnostic criteria, then keep in mind that executive functioning disorder and executive dysfunction are not official disorders in the DSM-5. However, a mental health professional can help you figure out the cause of executive dysfunction to suggest a proper treatment plan.
If you’ve noticed a difference in your or your child’s executive skills, then it is recommended you speak to a professional for a diagnosis. There are various assessments, tests, and examinations that can help diagnose an executive dysfunction or its subsequent cause.
Is There A Treatment For Executive Dysfunction?
Yes, there are treatments available for executive dysfunction however those treatment options may vary depending on the cause of the dysfunction. It is why it’s recommended that you speak to a professional as they can help narrow down any possible causes and come up with the right treatment.
For example, if your child is struggling with executive dysfunction, especially speech, then they can recommend a speech therapist that would be able to help your child cope with their trouble.
Other than that, there are therapy approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that can help you identify and address negative behaviors and thoughts and replace them with helpful ones. A CBT Therapist can also help you come up with new coping strategies to cope with difficult emotions and stress.
There’s also organizational coaching that can help with executive functioning. This kind of approach involves a coach who can guide you through and teach you skills such as time management, planning, organization, etc., depending on your needs.
Other self-help ways you can try to deal with executive dysfunction could include:
- Using organizational apps
- Using sticky notes or reminders
- Using a paper schedule
- Keeping your workspace or living space organized
Some Additional Coping Tips To Help You
Along with therapy or coaching, you can make some simple lifestyle changes to cope with executive dysfunction. Some coping tips to help you can include;
- Meditation: With regular meditation, you can improve your awareness of the present moment, which in turn, can improve your focus and concentration. Meditation can also help ease any stress you’re facing and lower your symptoms of depression, all of which can contribute to your executive dysfunction.
- Break Down Tasks: When you’re too burdened with tasks, then it can also make it harder for you to focus. Try to break down your tasks into smaller ones so that you can focus on one thing at a time. It will keep you less overwhelmed and will also help you check off the tasks on your list.
- Seek Help: If you can’t handle too many things at once, then try seeking help from your trusted ones. Whether at work or home, you can rely on your trusted ones to help you. With additional help, you’ll be able to complete your tasks and refrain from getting too overwhelmed.
- Keep Going: It’s OK to feel frustrated with yourself when you can’t remember important dates or can’t focus on one thing at a time or even have difficulty staying organized. It might sound good to just give up, but instead of that, try to keep going. Try to replace self-criticism with positive affirmations and keep encouraging yourself to do better and more.
- Take Breaks: Forcing yourself to complete a task when you’re fatigued will not help you. It will make you lose focus even more. So instead of doing that, make sure you take regular breaks to recharge your mind and body.
- Sleep Well: Your mind and body are connected and if you lose your sleep, your executive dysfunction will not improve. Try to get as much quality sleep as possible to make sure your productivity and well-being are well taken care of. When you sleep well, you’re better able to regulate your emotions and take care of your tasks as well as any challenges life throws at you.
Executive dysfunction might not be a formal mental health diagnosis, but it can be a symptom of different mental health conditions. When executive dysfunction is left untreated then it can interfere with your everyday life.
With the right help and support, you can address these challenges easily and improve your executive skills. If you or your loved one is struggling with executive dysfunction, then you can reach out to a professional for diagnosis and treatment.
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