Mental Health Awareness Month

Chances are, you or someone you know has experienced mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 19.1% of U.S. adults (47.6 million people) experienced mental illness in 2018. The organization Mental Health First Aid calculates that almost half of adults (46.4 percent) will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. For Mental Health Awareness Month, FamilyWorks wants to inform you about a lesser-known, but very common, symptom of mental illness called Executive Dysfunction.

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by everything you had to do that you didn’t know where to start? Have you ever struggled to make a seemingly simple decision, or avoided a project because you couldn’t figure out what order you should do things in? Have you ever had difficulty beginning something, even though you knew it needed to be done?

This trouble with task initiation, decision making, and planning is called Executive Dysfunction. It is a common symptom of many mental illnesses (such as anxiety or depression) and neurodivergencies (such as ADHD or autism). If you find yourself constantly losing personal items, unable to deal with frustrations or setbacks, struggling to keep your space organized, or having difficulty with time management, you are likely dealing with Executive Dysfunction.

COVID-19 means that we are all feeling more stress and loss than usual, and are therefore more likely to feel the effects of Executive Dysfunction. While seeing a counselor or occupational therapist is beneficial, here are some steps you can take at home:

1. Practice Self-Compassion

When dealing with Executive Dysfunction, it is very easy to label yourself (or have others label you) as lazy. But laziness is an intentional choice not to do something, while Executive Dysfunction is the inability of the brain to switch tasks.  Laziness is, “Eh, I don’t want to do the dishes.  I’d rather watch Netflix.”  Executive Dysfunction is, “I need to do the dishes.  I need to do the dishes!  Why am I not doing the dishes?!”

Rather than being hard on yourself for something beyond your control (your brain’s lowered ability to adapt to new situations), allow yourself time to switch tasks. Say, “I will start the dishes in 30 minutes” or “when this episode is over”. Note when there’s approximately ten minutes left to give yourself time to adjust to getting up and beginning something new.

2. Pomodoro Method

Another method that can help is taking regularly scheduled breaks. Our brains are not meant to do the same task for hours on end!  Decide how much time you want to spend working, and how long you would like your rest break to be (common choices are 20 on/10 off and 45 on/15 off, but find what works for you). Set a timer, and stick to it! When in work mode (whether that’s working from home or doing household chores), do your best to keep your attention focused. When in rest mode, take a walk or get something to eat or drink so that your brain is refreshed for the next round.

3. “Junebugging” Method

Have you ever watched the insects called june bugs bounce across your window screen? It can be fascinating to watch them hop erratically in no particular direction. This is a useful metaphor to keep in mind when thinking of organizing while fighting Executive Dysfunction.

For example, say you need to clean your kitchen sink. You look under the cupboard and find you are out of cleaner. You go to the store to buy cleaner, and decide to pick up a few other things you need while you’re there. You come home, put the groceries in the refrigerator, and go to put the toilet paper away in the bathroom. While in the bathroom, you notice the towels need to be washed, so you start a load of laundry. Finally, you look at the time and are shocked to realize that it’s been 90 minutes, and you STILL haven’t cleaned your kitchen sink!

When we don’t understand Executive Dysfunction, this can feel like a failure or waste of time. The Junebugging Method tries to value and appreciate those erratic hops, even if we didn’t originally intend to do those things. After all, the sink might not be clean (yet), but you’ve already accomplished your grocery shopping and started a load of laundry. Embrace your brain’s inability to focus instead of blaming yourself. Get a little bit of everything done instead. Get distracted while you’re dusting and end up reorganizing your shelf? Fantastic! Now things are exactly as you want them.

When dealing with Executive Dysfunction, complex tasks or decisions can feel overwhelming. Hopefully these tips can help you get your plans (and your feelings) more under control and leave you better equipped to face the challenges ahead.