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  • Adam Stanford

Breaking Through Executive Dysfunction



When the body perceives a threat, rather real or imagined, realistic or exaggerated, it can respond by pumping out a bunch of adrenaline and cortisol. When this leads to flooding, it can cause a fight, flight, panic, freeze, or fawn response. Executive dysfunction is a common example of a freeze response, or, when it triggers a dissociative reaction, a flight response.


Executive dysfunction is a common problem for those with anxiety or depression, but anyone can be impacted by it at times. It can manifest in various ways, such as difficulties with planning and starting tasks, making decisions, and managing time. These difficulties can significantly impact daily life, causing stress, frustration, and a sense of overwhelm.

Executive dysfunction can also manifest in other ways, such as forgetfulness, difficulty planning and completing tasks, and difficulty with impulse control. For some, it may be challenging to focus on tasks and sustain attention for extended periods. These symptoms can lead to a lack of productivity and a feeling of being stuck in a cycle of failure, which can exacerbate anxiety and depression symptoms.


Types of Executive Dysfunction and Their Impact on Daily Life

People experiencing executive dysfunction often struggle to break down tasks into manageable steps. They may also find it challenging to prioritize tasks, leading to a sense of overwhelm. One of the most common examples is struggling to start and complete chores and errands. Your brain basically conceptualizes all of the household chores as one single giant task.

There are many ways to get started and your brain can get stuck on deciding which way is best. Or you may know where to get started and even visualize it in your mind but it feels like there’s an invisible wall between you and the steps you need to take. Similarly, your brain may view running errands as monumental tasks with too many components involved such as scheduling, parking, making the time, waiting in lines, etc…

Another common type of executive dysfunction is decision-making. Individuals may find it challenging to make decisions leading to a sense of indecisiveness and increased anxiety. We can get caught up on making the “best” decision even when the difference is not significant or when a quick decision is always better than no decision. Decisions under pressure may feel impossible because the limbic system in our brain hijacks the frontal lobe which is responsible for complex thinking and problem solving.

People may also struggle with impulse control, leading to difficulty in resisting urges that may not be in their best interest. This can happen because resisting the emotional impulse for short term gratification can feel too difficult or because, once again, the more rational part of the brain has been cut out of the process. Sometimes, like in the case of addictions, this is triggered by the release of dopamine in the brain.


Tips for Overcoming Executive Dysfunction in Daily Life

One of the most effective strategies is to break down tasks into manageable steps. You can do this by describing the steps out loud (talking to yourself outloud does not make you crazy!) or by writing them down. For example:

  1. Grab the cleaning supplies

  2. Scrub the toilet

  3. Scrub the bathtub

  4. Take a 10 minute break- maybe drink some water and have a snack or watch something funny online

  5. Scrub the shower tile

  6. Clean the mirror

  7. Put the cleaning supplies back

“Grab the cleaning supplies,” might feel a lot more manageable than, “clean the whole bathroom.” Adding in breaks also helps prevent your mind from thinking as though everything all has to be done at once. It can be helpful to be patient and space out the task; give yourself realistic deadlines and chip away at bigger chores in a paced manner. Relax into it and be mentally present to avoid a false sense of urgency causing you to feel unnecessarily rushed.

Another useful strategy is to prioritize tasks. Always place the biggest, most important tasks as the top priorities and work in the smaller things here and there when you have some time between the bigger things. Don’t just get started with all the little things first and put off the bigger ones because that quickly becomes a way to put off the bigger things indefinitely. Several larger, more complex goals building up causes more stress than a bunch of things that can be checked off very quickly. Finishing the bigger things provides more of a sense of accomplishment and motivation.


Coping Strategies for Executive Dysfunction During Anxiety Attacks

One strategy that can be helpful is to practice deep breathing and mindfulness. You can find videos on YouTube that will guide you through breathing exercises. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) includes excellent mindfulness training skills but there are also many apps available to help with mindfulness training. Just keep in mind that you need to practice mindfulness on a frequent basis and make it second nature before you can expect to be successful with it when you are getting flooded. By taking deep breaths and focusing on the present moment, you can reduce anxiety symptoms and improve cognitive functioning overall.

Another strategy that can be helpful is to engage in physical activity. Exercise is how the body processes out excess adrenaline and cortisol which can really help improve cognitive functioning. Try taking a short walk, doing some stretches or yoga, or maybe even some jumping jacks. Focus on a mantra like, “just take it step by step, there’s time to get this done, I don’t have to do everything all at once, I can take breaks along the way.”


Lifestyle Changes to Manage Executive Dysfunction

In addition to therapy and mindfulness techniques, lifestyle changes can also be helpful for managing executive dysfunction. Engaging in regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and getting sufficient sleep can all improve cognitive functioning and reduce anxiety symptoms. It is also essential to engage in activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction such as reading and other hobbies or talking about your feelings and struggles with a compassionate person. If you’re always busy, commit yourself to adopting this attitude: “relaxation IS productive.”

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