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Why Do We Struggle With Executive Functioning?

Lara Calus

9th February 2024

Academic and emotional problems are key indicators of executive functioning difficulties, and this may be more common than you think.

Sufferers of ADHD, depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder are all examples of those struggling with executive functioning. Here we look at ways to combat and transform these struggles.

Executive functioning refers to all the tasks it takes to plan something, such as gathering tools, starting a project, staying on the task, and following up, as well as completing the task. Whilst this is something we all do every day, some of us have great difficulty in focusing and carrying out the various tasks to complete a given larger goal or task.

ADHD patients often have executive functioning problems plus a myriad of other difficulties such as working memory and distractibility issues. However, some methods and apps can aid and support these difficulties such as tracking apps for progress, breaking tasks down into smaller chunks, and reward schemes. Pairing with another person on a task has also been reported to help individuals stay on task.

Executive functioning is not something that affects people with ADHD. Individuals with depression have difficulties in maintaining a goal and those who suffer from anxiety have difficulties with cognitive flexibility. Again some methods have helped and aided these difficulties such as breaking a complex task down into manageable pieces for those suffering from anxiety. Furthermore, motivational assistance such as checking in with the individual throughout a task, can be helpful for those suffering from depression.

Perhaps more commonly, stress can be a trigger for difficulties with executive functioning, This could show up as struggling to organise tasks, ideas, and time. Leveraging the strengths outlined above as well as psychotherapy that focuses on executive functioning can aid those who struggle.

Read more on this with the following references:

* How to manage problem with executive function; The many tasks involved in settling out and completing a larger task.

* Anger, M., Wantzen, P., Le Vaillant, J., Malvy, J., Bon, L., Guénolé, F., & Guillery-Girard, B. (2019). Positive effect of visual cuing in episodic memory and episodic future thinking in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1513.

* Cotrena, C., Damiani Branco, L., Ponsoni, A., Samame, C., Milman Shansis, F., & Paz Fonseca, R. (2020). Executive functions and memory in bipolar disorders I and II: new insights from meta‐analytic results. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 141(2), 110-130.

* Parola, A., Salvini, R., Gabbatore, I., Colle, L., Berardinelli, L., & Bosco, F. M. (2020). Pragmatics, theory of mind and executive functions in schizophrenia: disentangling the puzzle using machine learning. PLoS One, 15(3), e0229603.

Lara Calus

Lara is an experienced Psychology lecturer and part of the tutor2u Psychology team.

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