What is executive function and why does it matter so much?
Executive function (EF) is an umbrella term used to capture a wide range of abilities that our brains carryout throughout the day. As the name suggests, these skills help us manage important tasks such as problem solving, planning, motivation, paying attention, ignoring irrelevant information, monitoring ourselves our internal and external needs and behavior, interpreting our emotions, actively holding information in our minds, and more. All of these cognitive skills are necessary aspects of managing day-to-day responsibilities. EF skills assist us with managing several important categories functioning: regulating our behavior/emotions and planning/organizing information.
When people report problems with executive function, they may describe feeling overwhelmed, disorganized, experiencing procrastination, anxiety, sensory problems, difficulty completing daily tasks that seem easy for others such as completing chores or getting work done on time. Many also report difficulty naming and describing emotions and needs, trouble starting or finishing tasks, frequent challenges remembering information, making impulsive decisions, and difficulty regulating eating.
People often associate EF challenges with ADHD, but there are many other reasons that someone might be experiencing these problems, including changes in mental health, trauma, learning disabilities, autism, sleep, diet/eating habits, chronic health problems, medical or physical health problems, and stress. Experiences of discrimination and oppression also impact EF. Research has demonstrated increased EF challenges in those who have experienced higher rates of racial discrimination, people who are queer/trans, and those who are autistic.
Symptoms of executive dysfunction can be invisible at times, particularly for those who are able to find additional strategies for coping or masking symptoms. For some, this involves working for several more hours than others to complete the same amount of work or highly detailed strategies for completing tasks that others can complete with little effort. Masking might take the form of sitting still during long meetings,
Treatment and Support
Many people report improvements in executive function with the use of coping strategies, accommodations, and therapy. Despite this, EF challenges are often lifelong for those who are autistic, have ADHD, and other more pervasive mental health, physical health, and cognitive disabilities. For those who experience a significant number of symptoms of executive dysfunction, psychological assessment can be a helpful option. Psychological testing is designed to pinpoint cognitive strengths and weaknesses in order to facilitate diagnosis and provide specific suggestions for improving concerns.
If you have concerns about executive function, a therapist at East Towson can help you understand the potential sources of these challenges and identify helpful strategies and accommodations to better support your day-to-day functioning.