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What are Executive Functions?

by Team FLEX

According to science executive functions are the specific self-directed actions that we use to control ourselves. They are the mental abilities that we use to guide our behavior, consider our past and anticipate the future.

Executive Functions are the mental abilities that we use to guide our behavior, consider our past and anticipate the future.

ADHD impacts the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which then impacts the normal development of 5 executive functioning areas thus giving us a myriad of symptoms. 

  1. Inhibition
  2. Nonverbal working memory
  3. Verbal working memory
  4. Emotional regulation
  5. Planning/Problem solving

Here’s where the inconsistency of ADHD rears its ugly head again. Your individual brain development will determine the extent to which you are impaired in these areas. 

According to Dr. Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D., an internationally recognized authority on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) in children and adults, “Executive functions operate together but can cause impairment separately” with each area developing independently but in sequence so that they each build on each other. Altogether, these areas of development combine into a “mental structure that facilitates self-control”. 

The deficits we suffer impair this natural progression that should “ultimately add up to adult self-determination”. 

Understand that you can compensate for the underdeveloped executive function by improving practical skills. 

For example, I know I have the capacity to be awful at planning. I’ve seen it in my own behavior. But due to these failures, and the intervention of a tutor at a young age, I learned to meticulously plan for the things I want to be successful at. I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being a bad planner, but that’s only because I overwork to prepare. They don’t see the stress and anxiety these events cause me. They see the beautiful end result.

So let’s talk about those Executive Functions!

Some of these areas can get confusing, so if you really want to get clear, I strongly recommend the book “Taking Charge of Adult ADHD” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Taking Charge of Adult ADHD” by Dr. Russel Barkley. 

Nonverbal Working Memory 

This function allows you to hold mental pictures in your head, along with sounds, tastes, sensations and smells. Additionally it allows us to visualize ourselves in the future or to study our past behavior. 

Being impaired in this area means you’ll have difficulty with:

  • Visualizing long-term goals, thus acquiring long-term rewards
  • Understanding or learning long, complicated sequences of behavior
  • Visualizing past behavior or events in order to predict future behavior or events
  • Learn through imitation (vicarious learning)
  • Development of self-awareness – Awareness of how your behavior or actions impact others
  • Awareness of and management of time

“To others you might look like you don’t think before you act. It would be more accurate to say that you have trouble remembering before you act”

“Taking Charge of Adult ADHD” by Dr. Russel Barkley. 

Verbal Working Memory 

Do you talk to yourself? Of course you do – that’s natural and something all kids do outwardly until between the ages of 7 and 9. At that age neurotypical children typically internalize this self talk. 

Verbal working memory allows you to verbally contemplate in your mind’s eye. It allows us to solve problems, to formulate rules and plans. To operate in a society built on rules and laws. This is the function that allows you to silently hold words you read to yourself in your mind for future reference. 

This is the executive function that allows you to self question and self talk in order to weigh pros and cons based on past experience to formulate plans to improve the future. To conduct moral reasoning and to be forward thinking.

A person with ADHD will have difficulty with:

  • Self talk used to self control 
  • Self talk to problem solve
  • Planning around uncertainty 
  • Setting standards for yourself
  • Visualizing plans
  • Rule following or breaking
  • Flexibility
  • Morally questionable behavior
  • Understanding contextual sensory information

Self Regulation of Emotion

I doubt there’s a single person reading this that hasn’t at one time or another wondered why they overreacted to something small. Nonverbal and verbal working memory are instrumental in helping us to regulate our emotional response. We use self talk to see how we feel and what we should do about it. 

Humans use self regulation of emotions to control arousal – the self directed urge and energy to act. 

This is the executive function that motivates us when there are no external rewards. It’s also at play when we express emotions in a socially acceptable way. 

A person with ADHD will have difficulty with: 

  • Appropriate emotional reactions (Particularly evident for women during certain phases of the menstrual cycle) 
  • Exaggerated emotions that steer you wrong’
  • Rousing yourself to do something you don’t want to but need to

Planning and Problem Solving – The Mind’s playground

The manipulation of those images and words we hold in our mind allows us to play with them thus planning and problem solving. It’s no wonder this Executive Functioning area is hindered if the others above are. This ability allows us to consider all options and decide on the best actions to reach a goal. This is the executive function at play when thinking outside of the box. 

If you have trouble with this area you’ll have more difficulty with:

  • Quick thinking or thinking on your feet
  • Organization
  • Order of importance
  • Steps to achieving goals

Outside of the box problem solving is actually a skill I’m quite strong with, even with ADHD – because again remember ADHD is inconsistent. 

Dorsey

There you have it. These are the four executive functioning areas that, according to Dr. Russell A Barkley’s book “Taking Charge of Adult ADHD” are slow to develop or impaired in people with ADHD. 

Here’s a great article from ADDitude Magazine if you want to learn more about Executive Functioning. 

 

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