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Exploring executive functions

At the core of all our services is the emphasis on executive functioning so what's the deal with executive functions (EF) anyway? Although researchers have yet to reach consensus on a single definition, extant literature has explored the neurobiological underpinnings and functional implications of these complex cognitive processes.

At Diverge, we define executive functions as "the set of cognitive skills that are needed to plan, execute, and modify your actions."

Executive functions, or the skills needed to plan, execute, and modify your actions, are amongst the newest functions of the human brain (from an evolutional standpoint). They are a critical distinction of what it means to be human. These complex skills develop well into adulthood and can continue transforming lifelong through neuroplasticity and neural pruning.

Given the complexity of EFs and their high energy consumption, they are particularly vulnerable to dysfunction as a result of neurological changes. Such neurological changes may be present at birth, as is common in neurodivergent individuals. These changes can also be acquired through neurological trauma or progressive degenerative conditions, like CTE and dementia. However, these changes may also be transient during periods of mental distress.

Functional Implications of Executive Dysfunction

Humans use EFs all day, every day. Rote, repetitive tasks and routines can recruit unconscious, procedural memory, a less complex cognitive process. However, any time you encounter a change, may it be in task demand, environment, or internal state, you begin recruiting executive functioning to respond and modify your behavior to meet the new demand/s. Executive functioning is responsible for deciding what to wear in the morning, when and what to eat, how to respond to that tricky email at work, and showing compassion to your partner during a disagreement.

Executive dysfunction can impact one's ability to recruit these processes and the capacity for their use. This can look like impulsivity, forgetfulness, or emotional reactivity. However, this can also look like nothing at all. Executive dysfunction tops the list of invisible disabilities given the unobservable nature of these internal processes as well as human's resilient tendencies to mask, i.e. fake it until you make it. Masking, or hiding symptoms, does not come without a cost, though. Masking is a cognitively demanding task itself, which further compounds with EF dysfunction, exacerbating and even amplifying the disabling effects quickly leading to burnout.

The silver lining

If you experience executive dysfunction, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

It CAN get better.

While, depending on the etiology, not all executive dysfunctions can be changed, your daily functioning and mental well-being can. Awareness and acceptance, lifestyle modifications, compensatory strategies, self-advocacy skills, and environmental modifications are just a few ways you can live better with executive dysfunction. Learn about your executive functioning and take steps towards a better life today with Diverge Community Services.

-Rachel Robertson, MOT, OTR/L

Certified Brain Injury Specialist

A human with executive dysfunctions

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