How Executive Dysfunction And Depression Are Related

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated December 19, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Executive functions enable us to to perform all kinds of fundamental tasks in our day-to-day lives, so experiencing dysfunction in this area may be a cause for concern. Executive dysfunction can be linked to many different conditions or illnesses, and depression is one of them. Read on to learn how to recognize if you’re experiencing this symptom, and how it may be related to your mental health.

Learn More About Executive Dysfunction and Depression.

What Are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are skills that are involved in a wide variety of daily tasks. They can be split into two types: those that are used for organization, and those that are used for regulation. Organizational functions include things like attention, planning, forming short-term memories, problem solving, and thinking flexibly or in an abstract way. Regulatory functions include things like monitoring internal and external stimuli, exercising self-control, managing emotions, using moral reasoning, and making decisions. 

For most people, these skills start to develop somewhere around two years of age and are usually fully formed by 30. As you can imagine, each one plays an important role in everyday life. That’s why problems with executive functioning can be challenging or even debilitating, depending on the severity of the issue.

What Is Executive Dysfunction?

Experiencing executive dysfunction means having difficulty with any of the abilities listed above. It may manifest as

  • Trouble switching from task to task

  • Getting distracted easily

  • Frequently daydreaming during conversations, work, or school

  • Difficulty motivating yourself

  • Difficulty organizing or planning ahead

  • Focusing too much on one thing

  • Frequently misplacing items

  • Experiencing problems with impulse control (snacking when trying to stick to a diet, blurting out thoughts you didn’t mean to, having inappropriate emotional reactions)

A person may have trouble in only one or two areas, or they may experience difficulty with many or all of them—a condition that’s sometimes referred to as executive function disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), this isn’t considered an official mental health disorder—typically because it’s usually a symptom of some other disorder, injury, or disease. Still, there are ways to treat executive dysfunction that can lead to significant improvement in daily functioning.

Causes Of Executive Dysfunction

Executive dysfunction can have or be linked to a variety of different causes, including:

  • Traumatic brain injuries

  • Toxins (such as carbon monoxide poisoning)

  • Vitamin deficiencies

  • Alzheimer’s or dementia

  • Epilepsy

  • Substance use disorders

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Schizophrenia

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Depression

In general, it’s related to damage to or deterioration of some parts of the brain. It can also range widely in severity and duration or frequency based on the main cause. 

How Executive Dysfunction Relates To Depression

Isolating the exact cause of executive dysfunction can be challenging in some cases. There are many possible contributing factors and some can be congenital or undiagnosed, making the main source harder to isolate. However, research does show that those who have depression are likely to experience some level of executive dysfunction as a symptom. 

What Is Depression?

Depression is more than feeling sad. It’s a mental illness that can be chronic and persistent, and it can negatively affect the way you think, feel, and behave. There are several different types of depression and many different ways it can affect a person. To be diagnosed with depression, an individual must exhibit a combination of several of these symptoms for at least two weeks:

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities

  • Significant fluctuations in appetite or weight

  • Significant fluctuations in sleep

  • Problems with planning or completing goal-directed activities

  • Lack of energy

  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt

  • Trouble thinking or making decisions

As you can see, some of the symptoms of depression overlap with those of executive dysfunction. However, that doesn’t mean that someone experiencing executive dysfunction definitely has depression. There can be other factors at play, as outlined in a previous section. That’s why a mental health professional would need to take an overview of your situation and learn more about what you’re feeling to decide if depression may be the root cause. 

Treating Executive Dysfunction And Depression

If you’ve noticed the symptoms of executive dysfunction manifesting in your life and you’ve noticed some symptoms of depression as well, there may be a link. Speaking with a mental health professional can be a helpful first step in getting to the bottom of it and exploring potential treatment options if the cause is mental-health related.

Therapy is one of the best treatment methods for depression and some other causes of executive dysfunction, with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) being especially effective. CBT is based on the concept that our thoughts and our behaviors are very closely linked, so it aims to help individuals learn to recognize and shift any unhelpful or flawed patterns of thinking. Over time, this type of therapy may contribute to a decrease in symptoms of depression—including executive dysfunction—and improve an individual’s daily functioning.

Learn More About Executive Dysfunction and Depression.

Seeking Treatment For Symptoms Of Depression

Connecting with a mental health professional is typically the recommended first step for those who are experiencing symptoms of depression. When seeking therapy for mental health concerns like this, the most important thing is to find a provider and a format that you feel most comfortable with. For those who prefer to receive mental health support or treatment from the comfort of their own home, online therapy is one available option. 

Studies have shown online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to actually be slightly more effective in treating certain mental illnesses than the face-to-face modality, though both are recognized as valid treatments. One literature review of 17 studies on the topic suggests that online CBT is more effective than traditional, in-person therapy for reducing symptoms of depression, specifically. It also notes that virtual CBT can be less expensive than in-person therapy.

If you’re interested in trying online therapy, consider a platform like BetterHelp. After filling out a brief questionnaire, you can get matched with a licensed mental health professional who suits your needs and preferences. If you prefer face-to-face therapy, you can search for providers who are located near you and specialize in the areas in which you need support. Regardless of the format you choose, a therapist can help you manage symptoms of mental health issues like depression, including executive dysfunction.

Below, you’ll find reviews of BetterHelp counselors who have helped people in similar situations.

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Someone experiencing executive dysfunction will have trouble with certain fundamental daily tasks. This symptom may have any number of causes, but depression is a common one. If you suspect you may have a mental health condition like depression, speaking with a therapist can help.

You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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