ADHD – Executive Functioning (part 2)

Part 2: What is executive functioning?

In my last blog I looked at what it is like to live with ADHD. This blog examines what executive functioning is.

ADHD as an Executive Functioning Disorder

Exeuctive functioning is mainly coordinated by the prefrontal cortex in the brain. This part of the brain then coordinates with other parts of the brain.

Executive functioning begins to develop around age 2 and finishes around age 30.

Those with ADHD are generally 30-40% behind their peers in the development of executive functions.   

People with ADHD will generally have issues across the executive functions.

Co-Morbidities

Many adults with ADHD have other co-morbidities (meaning another condition that happens at the same time) that also affect executive functioning.   You might even have more than one condition that impact on your executive functioning. For example, I also have anxiety and autism. This means that my issues with executive functioning are both complicated and compounded.

This is good to keep in mind when you are trying to apply strategies to address executive functioning. What is going to work brilliantly for some people may not work at all for others.

Executive functioning explained

Executive functioning are the processes that help us reason, problem solve and plan. The process parts of executive functioning are working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control.   

Working memory includes the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information for cognitive tasks performed in daily life.   It’s a little bit like the RAM in your computer.    You can hold a limited amount of time in your working memory, on average maybe 5-7 items.  How well your working memory operates depends on your ability to control your attention.   

Cognitive flexibility refers to being flexible in your thinking. This includes seeing relationships between different things and ideas and being able to view concepts from different perspectives.   

Inhibitory control includes:   

  • self control 
  • being able to ignore distractions 
  • resist temptations 
  • regulation of emotions   

It keeps you from acting impulsively and is critical for avoiding faux pas and adhering to social norms. 

The tasks of executive functioning

These processes work together to do the tasks for executive functioning. The key jobs of executive functioning include:

  • paying attention 
  • organising and planning 
  • initiating tasks and remaining focused 
  • regulating emotions 
  • self monitoring 

In my next blog post – I will discuss what some of the things that you can do to manage and strengthen your executive functioning.

ADHD – Executive Functioning (part 1)

Part 1: What is it like to live with ADHD?

If you have ADHD, you probably know that it can affect all areas of your life. We all tend to experience ADHD a bit different, but our struggles are underpinned by the same issues. Everyone with ADHD has some issues with executive functioning.

In this blog series I want to take a look at
1. What it is like to live with ADHD
2. What is executive functioning?
3. Some strategies for improving Executive Functioning.

What is it like to live with ADHD?

About 4% of the adult population is diagnosed with ADHD in Australia. Though as many people are only diagnosed as adults, this figure is likely to be higher.

Some of the ways that ADHD affects me is that:  
– I interrupt people I know this really annoys other people, and it’s something I struggle to control sometimes  
– I forget things. My keys.  Appointments.  What people have told me.   
– I impulse shop.  Food, clothes.  Stationery.  I could basically open a stationery store.  

There are some common threads that people with ADHD struggle with, and that is in part because ADHD affects our executive functioning. Research into ADHD adults as a cohort has found some specific things that we struggle with more than others. Some of these things may resonate with you. You might even say “Oh, I didn’t realise that was an ADHD thing”.  

Not all of these things will apply to you. This is because you are not just your ADHD. You also have your own unique strengths, talents and experiences which influences how you express ADHD in real life.

Let’s look at some of the things that we struggle with as those with ADHD. 

Money 

We struggle with money. Compared to those without ADHD we:

  • pay more late and overdraft fees  
  • are more likely to have a poor credit rating 
  • are more likely to be in debt 
  • engage in much more impulsive buying 
  • have more difficulty in saving money   

ADHD doesn’t just cost people who have ADHD, it also costs the economy.  Deloitte’s estimates that ADHD has a cost to the economy in Australia of about $20 billion.   

Work 

We struggle at work.  Compared to those without ADHD we

  • switch jobs more frequently due to disliking the job 
  • are more likely to be fired 
  • are more likely to work in unskilled work  
  • are more likely to be unemployed 

Relationships 

We struggle with our relationships.  In our relationships, ADHD:

  • negatively impact on intimacy 
  • leads to higher rates of conflict in relationships
  • leads to higher rates of relationship breakdown than those without ADHD  

Interestingly, studies showed that people with ADHD generally noticed less of the issues in the relationships. However, those without ADHD in a relationship with someone who has ADHD, really felt the impact of these things. 

School 

We struggle with learning. Compared to those without ADHD: 

  • we experience higher school/university drop outs  
  • we have lower overall academic achievement 

Self Medicate 

Especially when we are undiagnosed, we self-medicate ourselves.  We use coffee, alcohol, other drugs to help regulate and manage ourselves.

Compared to those without ADHD, we are more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder.   

Self-Esteem and Self-Concept

These lifetime of struggles are going to affect how we view ourselves (self concept) and how we feel about ourselves (self esteem).   

This is exacerbated when we are perfectionists as well, because we hold very high expectations of ourselves. When we’re hard on ourselves we compare us to others – neurotypicals. We say “if they can do it, why can’t we?” Or even worse – that’s what we’re told by our parents, teachers and partners: “why can’t you be like a normal adult?”

Living in a world that is constantly focused on what we struggle with is demoralising.  And even more so when they don’t understand what ADHD is like.   

Not hopeless  

However, we are not hopeless or helpless, because there are things that we can do to improve ourselves and our lives!  

ADHD can be viewed, in part, as an executive functioning disorder. And because of that, knowing about executive functioning and what strategies we can implement can empower us to make meaningful changes in our lives to help us cope better.

In the next blog, I will discuss what executive functioning is. Then in Part 3, I will give some practical strategies to manage and strengthen your executive functioning.