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Understanding the Connection Between Executive Dysfunction and ADHD

Today, I’m going to dive into the connection between executive dysfunction and ADHD.

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As women and as moms especially, we have to juggle and remember a ton of things for everyone. All of that is part of executive functioning. If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD (or even if you suspect you have it), it would explain why you struggle keeping track of all those things.

Executive dysfunction is a common struggle for moms (or anyone) with ADHD. When your executive function processes aren’t working, it will lead to difficulty in managing daily tasks like planning, time management, and organization. ADHD is a neurological disorder that affects attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. While executive dysfunction is not a diagnostic criterion for ADHD, the two often go hand in hand.

Before diving deeper into the connection between executive dysfunction and ADHD, let’s take a closer look at each of them.

executive dysfunction and ADHD - and overhwelmed woman sitting at a white desk in front of her computer and planner, holding her face

What is Executive Dysfunction?

Karl Pribram is credited with coining the term executive functioning in 1973. Executive dysfunction refers to difficulties with the cognitive processes that control our ability to plan, organize, and initiate and complete tasks. Executive functioning also involves skills such as working memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, and self-regulation.

If you have executive dysfunction, you might struggle with any or all of these skills. Time management, prioritization, and completing multi-step tasks can be difficult.

What is ADHD?

ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, affects approximately 7% of children and 5-5% of adults worldwide. Its symptoms are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Inattention includes not only sustaining focus or concentration but also might present as forgetfulness and disorganization. Inattention can also be distractibility which is almost like paying attention to too much. It prevents you from focusing on what you need to do. Hyperactivity includes fidgeting, restlessness, and the inability to sit still. Impulsivity includes interrupting others, speaking without thinking, and acting without considering the consequences.

With the rise of social media, I’m looking at you, TikTok, many people have started to recognize the symptoms of ADHD in themselves. However, the only way to be truly diagnosed is through an official assessment. A clinical assessment is completed with a licensed psychologist and involves an interview, rating scales, and observation.

The key here is that the symptoms that are present impair functioning and are not explained by some other condition. You might exhibit symptoms that seem like ADHD, but if they are not causing an impairment, you probably don’t have ADHD.

That said, over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of women get diagnosed as adults. This diagnosis has helped them understand why they’ve been struggling, but it’s a long process to make effective changes in their lives to improve their executive functioning.

yellow background with butterfly silhouettes; on right side female silhouette in thinking pose with hand on the chin her brain is shown in the silhouette; on the left side there is a pocket watch and an hourglass

The Connection Between Executive Dysfunction and ADHD

If you’ve been paying attention to the descriptions above, I’m sure you can see the obvious connection between executive dysfunction and ADHD. They are opposites. But let’s look a little closer at this connection.

Executive dysfunction is a common symptom of ADHD, but it’s not a requirement. Likewise, you can absolutely have executive dysfunction without ADHD.

There is a connection between executive dysfunction and ADHD because the same regions of the brain that control executive functioning also regulate attention and hyperactivity. Neuroimaging studies have shown that people with ADHD have differences in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain that is responsible for executive functions. People with ADHD have abnormal activity patterns, which can lead to difficulties with cognitive control and self-regulation.

Knowing that these brain differences exist should help in understanding why you struggle. These differences can lead to a variety of challenges for you. Difficulty with time management, forgetting appointments or deadlines, task initiation and task completion are all things ADHDers face. They might also struggle with decision-making, prioritization, and organization. These activities can have a negative impact on all areas of life.

At work, your ADHD may cause you to struggle to meet deadlines, maintain focus in meetings, or complete long-term projects on time. Meeting deadlines and working on long-term projects require an enormous amount of planning and prioritization, which is challenging.

In school, students with executive dysfunction will often turn in assignments late or not at all. They have a hard time studying because they can’t focus for extended periods of time. Their lack of organization makes studying, homework, and notetaking difficult.

As a mom with executive dysfunction and ADHD running a household can be overwhelming. Managing tasks such as paying bills on time, cleaning, and cooking can seem like a lot. You might forget appointments and struggle to keep track of everyone’s schedules.

The connection between executive dysfunction and ADHD is multi-faceted and complex. These challenges can impact every aspect of your daily life. Understanding these connections can aid in developing tools and strategies to manage the difficulties you face and help you improve your executive functioning.

Managing Executive Dysfunction and ADHD

As I mentioned, in order to be diagnosed, you need to seek professional help and that diagnosis is the first step in learning to manage your executive dysfunction and ADHD. Your healthcare provider (psychologist/therapist/psychiatrist) can help you determine the best course of action for you based on your needs and lifestyle. Treatment for executive dysfunction and ADHD can be a combination of medication, behavioral interventions, and lifestyle modifications.

I’m not going to talk much about medication because it is so very personal for every person. You have to go through a medical doctor, usually a psychiatrist but some primary care doctors will prescribe. It takes time and trials to find the right medicine at the right dosage.

When you’re talking about medicating kids, sometimes there are rapid changes because they are growing and changing so much. As an adult, things are typically more stable, but as women, we know we face hormonal and body changes that can affect medication. So, talk to your doctor.

Behavioral interventions can be helpful. Some people respond well to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Others simply need coaching or skills training, which is my area of focus. Programs like these can help you learn how to use tools and strategies to improve executive functioning and manage your symptoms.

Want to learn more about executive functioning? Take my FREE course.

Lifestyle modifications are very effective for most people. I consider these to be tools we use, such as reminders and alarms, as well as creating habits and routines to make our lives easier. Regular exercise, mindfulness practice, and regular sleep can increase attention and focus and reduce stress. Adequate sleep is vital for managing ADHD because sleep deprivation can exacerbate your symptoms.

Self-care is also very important for managing symptoms. Surrounding yourself with a quality support system can be the difference between successfully managing your symptoms and burning out. Learning to manage your symptoms takes a lot of effort, so you need to prioritize your mental health and well-being.

Managing executive dysfunction and ADHD typically requires a multi-faceted approach. There is no one size fits all solution, but understanding what the symptoms are and learning ways to manage them can improve the quality of your life.

woman working on a laptop; cup of tea, and cell phone beside her as she types in a spreadsheet

One last thing I want to mention is that many coaching programs can be super expensive. For many moms, this is a deal breaker. They will pour all of their energy and money into anything that will help their kids, but they’re not willing to do the same for themselves. I’m not going to try to convince you that you should. What I am going to say is that you can educate yourself with lots of free information (like my blog).

Implementing tools and strategies on your own, however, is more difficult because it requires the use of executive functioning. I suggest you find a support system of people you trust to act as accountability partners to help you manage your symptoms. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The connection between executive dysfunction and ADHD is complex because differences in brain structure and activity vary by person. However, understanding this connection can help you determine your best course of action. Choosing interventions and strategies that will have the greatest impact on your daily life can lead to successfully achieving your goals and overcoming challenges

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