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Overwhelm Leading to Loss of Executive Function

January 23, 2024 Natasha Tracy

I have found that being too overwhelmed can lead to a loss of executive function. Basically, my head gets filled with life's troubles and illness, and then it can't think complicated thoughts. That's the crux of it. The thing is, complicated thoughts like those involved in planning and problem-solving are pretty crucial for getting through your day. So, how do we deal with the effects of overwhelm on executive function?

What Is Executive Function?

According to a paper by Adele Diamond in Annual Review of Psychology

"Executive functions (EFs) make possible mentally playing with ideas; taking the time to think before acting; meeting novel, unanticipated challenges; resisting temptations; and staying focused."1

Diamond goes on to say that the core and higher-order executive functions are:

  • Inhibition (self-control — resisting temptations and resisting acting impulsively)
  • Working memory
  • Cognitive flexibility (including creatively thinking “outside the box,” seeing anything from different perspectives, and quickly and flexibly adapting to changed circumstances)
  • Reasoning
  • Problem-solving
  • Planning

Executive functions aren't required for every kind of thought. For example, spelling a simple word doesn't require them, but they are required for more complicated thinking processes, such as considering the ramifications of what you're about to say or do or solving a problem you are facing at work. These types of complicated thinking processes are critical to success in our everyday lives.

While executive functions can be impaired for a variety of reasons, they are known to be impaired for those with:

Overwhelming and Executive Functions

According to Diamond, executive functions are the first thing to go and suffer the most when you are stressed, sad, lonely, sleep-deprived, or not physically fit. 

In my case, I find that I get overwhelmed by the symptoms of my illness — bipolar disorder, or, more commonly for me, depression in bipolar disorder. My brain can't form a simple thought without it being interrupted by a depression effect. Moreover, my brain feels full and foggy. Trying to get a thought through my brain is like trying to navigate through muddy pea soup. It's slow and winding, and thoughts frequently get lost and confused.  

It's no surprise, then, that executive functions are dramatically impacted by overwhelm. Because executive functions require being able to hold a thought in your brain while making considerations about that thought, it requires more effort than your standard simple thought.

Overwhelm impacting my executive thought makes it very difficult for me to accomplish much of anything, particularly considering I'm a writer, and writing requires being able to focus and hold many thoughts in your head at one time.

Improving Executive Function When You Are Overwhelmed

There are formal programs that work to improve executive functions overall. Those are mostly aimed at people who have chronic issues with executive function. That's not what I'm talking about. 

In my case, what I need are immediate coping skills for executive function decline because of overwhelm. Here are some coping skills I try:

  • It is important to do whatever I can to decrease my feeling of being overwhelmed. This may include meditation, exercise, rest, contacting my doctor for a medication alteration, eating better, etc. I need to solve the problem of why I'm overwhelmed in the first place, and the only thing that may do that is improving the underlying condition.
  • Drinking extra coffee can help. This is a tiny thing that can help a tiny bit, but if I'm desperate, I'll try it.
  • Sleeping better is critical. Sleep loss, when overwhelmed, will do nothing but make it worse.
  • Breaking tasks down into tiny, tiny parts can allow me to make decisions and plan things.
  • Asking for the help of my loved ones can help. They can provide a reality check for what I'm doing and help guide more complicated thoughts.
  • Asking for help from a therapist can help defuse the feeling of being overwhelmed. Sometimes, what I need is a place to unload my overwhelm and come up with new strategies for dealing with its cause.

In short, when you are overwhelmed, and it's impacting your executive function, you need to deal with the underlying condition (such as depression), the reason you are overwhelmed in the first place (such as a life event), and the impact of the executive function loss. This is not easy. Nonetheless, it can be done a little bit at a time, and eventually, it can get better.

Source

  1. Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 135–168. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2024, January 23). Overwhelm Leading to Loss of Executive Function, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2024/1/overwhelm-leading-to-loss-of-executive-function



Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

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