How Executive Dysfunction And Depression Are Related

Updated October 18, 2021

If you have depression or know someone who does, you might be curious about what depression is and what it means for the person experiencing it. You might also be wondering what type of symptoms come with depression and what they could mean for you or your loved one's future. When learning about depression, you'll want to pay attention to the relationship between it and executive dysfunction. After all, your executive functions can be extremely important to your everyday life. If you're not paying attention to how they can be affected by depression or other mental health disorders, you could run into some challenges.

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What Are Executive Functions?

First, let's take a look at what executive functions are. These are the skills you use when trying to pay attention, multitask, or remember information. Executive functions can be split into two types: organization and regulation. Executive functions that fall under organization include attention, sequencing, planning, working memory, problem-solving, rule acquisition, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, and selecting relevant sensory information. Meanwhile, executive functions under the regulation umbrella refer to initiating action, monitoring internal and external stimuli, self-control, emotional regulation, initiating and inhibiting context-specific behavior, moral reasoning, and decision-making.

In short, your executive functions are responsible for allowing you to plan, organize, strategize, and manage your time better. For most people, these skills start to develop somewhere around two years of age, and by the time you reach 30 years of age, your executive functions are typically fully developed. As you can likely guess, each of these skills plays a role in your everyday life. Therefore, problems with executive functioning can be challenging or even debilitating, depending on the severity of the issue.

What Is Executive Dysfunction?

When you have executive dysfunction, it means that you have difficulty with any number of the functions discussed in the previous section. You may have trouble with only one or two different aspects of executive function, or you may have all of them. For those with these types of difficulties, this executive dysfunction is sometimes referred to as executive function disorder. However, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), this isn't considered an official mental health disorder. Still, there are ways that executive dysfunction can be treated. Many methods are available to you that can help you either gain these skills or improve them.

What About Executive Dysfunction And Depression?

One reason that you may have executive dysfunction is depression. That's because depression affects several areas of the brain. One of the potentially affected areas is the part of the brain that controls these skills and responsibilities. If you have damage to this area of the brain, either through injury or a congenital disability, or if the area is affected by depression, you could have difficulty developing these skills in the first place. Or, you may have trouble getting your executive functions to the level that they should be. That's why it's important to find out more about why and how the executive dysfunction began.

If you have had executive dysfunction for a long period, you may have an injury or some other reason explaining why you've never been able to accomplish these types of tasks. On the other hand, if the dysfunction is relatively recent and you've been diagnosed with depression, the two may be linked. In that case, working through your depression may allow you to regain some or all of your executive functions and get back to the life that you want to live with all of the skills you are meant to have.

Do I Have Executive Dysfunction?

If you live with executive dysfunction, you may experience any combination of the symptoms in the bulleted list below or experience something else entirely. Because every person is different, you can experience executive dysfunction will be different as well. Talk to your doctor and a mental health professional if you find yourself experiencing difficulty with any combination of these or other experiences not listed so that you may be able to start working toward improvements as soon as possible.

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  • Trouble managing your time effectively
  • Difficulty keeping your things organized
  • Continued loss of items
  • Lack of ability to deal with frustration
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Difficulty recalling information
  • Lack of ability to monitor emotions and behavior
  • Misplacing items constantly
  • Difficulty in planning and starting work or other projects
  • Inability to multitask
  • Difficulty with verbal fluency
  • Difficulty processing, storing, and retrieving information.
  • Mood swings that are hard to control
  • A lack of concern for people and animals
  • A loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed
  • Engagement in socially inappropriate behavior
  • Inability to learn from consequences from your past actions
  • Difficulty comprehending abstract concepts

If you feel like the list above (or aspects of the list above) describes you, or like you're constantly falling behind on things that you used to be able to do, then it's possible that you're being affected by this disorder. Combine that with some of the symptoms of depression that we will discuss in the following sections, and you may see drastic improvement if you seek help from a mental health professional.

What Is Depression?

Depression is more than feeling sad. It's a mental health disorder that is chronic and persistent, and depression can negatively affect the way you think, feel, and behave. There are several different types of depression and many different ways it can affect you in your life. We'll talk about some of the symptoms here, which you may be experiencing in any combination. To be diagnosed with depression, an individual must exhibit a combination of several of these symptoms that persists for at least two weeks. A mental health professional will be able to make an official diagnosis and let you know if depression is the most likely cause of the symptoms you're experiencing.

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Increase or decrease in appetite or weight
  • Increase or decrease in sleep
  • Lack of energy
  • Purposeless activities
  • Slowed speech
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt
  • Trouble thinking or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death and suicide

As you can see based on the two bulleted lists in this article, some of the symptoms of depression overlap with those of executive dysfunction. This is one of the reasons that the two are so closely linked in many ways. Because of depression and the lack of interest and motivation that often goes along with it, it's entirely possible that you could start to experience a type of brain fog that makes it difficult to think.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7.

Want To Learn More About Executive Dysfunction And Depression?
Speak With A Board-Certified Mental Health Expert Online.

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To make a diagnosis, a therapist or mental health professional will also look at several different aspects of your life and health conditions to ensure no other reason for the symptoms you are experiencing. Brain tumors, vitamin deficiencies, and even thyroid problems can result in some of these symptoms. These will be evaluated as possibilities before treatment for depression will be started in any form. In the next section, we'll talk about the combination of therapies and treatments commonly used to treat both of these disorders.

Treating Executive Dysfunction And Depression

If you're looking for treatment, one of the best things that you can do is seek out a mental health professional. Therapy is one of the best treatment methods for these disorders, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT, which focuses on your behaviors and how your thinking can control them. When paired with medications (and even on its own), this type of therapy has seen tremendous results. CBT can greatly improve the chances of getting back to the type of life you want to live again. Always talk to your doctor before beginning any medication.

With this combination of therapy and medication, you may start to recognize improvements in your life and how you perform different functions. If you are only interested in therapy and prefer not to take medication, that option is available. Keep in mind that your physician or primary care physician, working in conjunction with your mental health professional, may prescribe you different medications to help treat these disorders. If you decide to take medication, continue to see your therapist and put in the work for the best possible outcome. After all, medication without therapy is generally less effective than medication paired with therapy.

Before signing up for medication, though, please consult with your doctor or primary care physician first.

Finding Your Help

If you're looking for professional help, the first thing you should be looking at is the therapists who can treat the disorders that you're currently experiencing. You won't have a formal diagnosis until you talk with a professional, but if you know the type of symptoms you're experiencing, you can get an idea of what you're dealing with and who you will want to talk to. You can start narrowing it down even further to who has the experience level and the training you feel most comfortable with.

Evidence has shown that online therapy has been proven to be slightly better than face-to-face therapy regarding cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In a literature review of 17 studies on the effectiveness of online CBT or eCBT when contrasted with traditional therapy, it was found that eCBT was better at reducing the symptoms of depression. It was also noted that eCBT could be less expensive than face-to-face therapy. Online therapy for CBT can also be used effectively for other mental health conditions. People with PTSD, eating disorders, and anxiety have found relief through this type of treatment.

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How BetterHelp Can Support You

BetterHelp is one way you can get the online help that you're looking for without having to worry about going to a physical office for your therapy. You'll be able to reach out to a mental health professional who has expertise and experience working with people who have depression. You'll be able to communicate with them from a place where you feel completely comfortable, your own home.

No matter where you are or what you're doing, all you're going to need for online counseling is a mobile device of some kind and an internet connection. You'll be able to connect to your therapy session from absolutely anywhere. That's definitely going to make it easier and more convenient for you to get in a session, so you can work on managing those symptoms of depression and get back to doing the things you enjoy. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Negin is incredible! She has created a safe space for me to be vulnerable and share my struggles with anxiety, depression, and life in general. She is very authentic and will be honest and kind with you about the hard stuff. So thankful to have been matched with her!"

"She is a wonderful human being, both understanding and insightful. Her expertise is reflected by how she approaches situations presented to her, and she offers concise help in tackling the root of my issues. I highly recommend her to anyone who is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other issues that you may be facing."


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