Our Battle With Executive Functioning Challenges

The purpose of our articles has always been to share some of our struggles and some of the ideas that have improved our lives. We hope that by being open with our struggles we can help others and, at the same time, we will gain more insight into ourselves. We don’t always find a path out of our trials, sometimes the best we can do is to make peace with them.

Today we are writing about a trial that has consumed a lot of our thoughts and efforts over the last number of years: executive functioning challenges.

You may have never heard of the term executive functions, we hadn’t until six months ago. Executive functions refer to the set of cognitive processes you use to control your behavior. This includes things like the ability to pay attention, stay organized, control your thoughts and emotions, remember things, and deal with change.

Learning about executive functions has changed our lives. How would you feel if you couldn’t understand your spouse’s point of view, even in relatively simple situations? What if the TV or phone was always the most interesting thing in the room? What if you were always losing things? What if you struggled to control your emotions, especially anger?

Kelli has struggled with the above problems for years. About 7-8 months ago it was suggested she might have ADHD. This didn’t go over very well. Then, thanks to a random Facebook post, we came across the term “executive function disorder”. As we learned more about this, we realized it explained a lot of Kelli’s behavior.

One of the most comforting things we learned was from Wikipedia: “executive functions ... can be improved at any time over the course of a person's life.”

Kelli learned she needed to be willing to change. She needed to realize her fear of failure and being alone were causing exactly the problems she was afraid of. She needed to be true to her marriage and the people around her, not just to her immediate feelings.

Nathan learned Kelli was struggling with some serious problems. He needed to be more understanding, and learn when she needed some space and when she needed a little push. He could see now she wasn’t hurting him on purpose or to be mean. She simply didn’t always have the ability to see anything beyond her own point of view.

We have found over the last six months, with some fairly simple (although not easy) changes, we have been able to make significant improvements in our lives. We have made large strides in both how well Kelli is able to function and how well Nathan is able to understand and help. We will talk about some of these things in more depth in future posts, but here are a few of the things we have been working on:

  • Emotional Regulation. Thoughts lead to feelings and emotions. One of the things we have been learning is that leaving negative thoughts spinning in our minds is very destructive. These thoughts change our reality. They affect how we see everything else around us. “The kids aren’t helping.” “My spouse didn’t give me a kiss this morning.” As these thoughts spin around in our brains we decide the other party is completely at fault, we have no role, we are powerless. These thoughts rob us of our ability to change our world. The world is out to get us. We become sad, frustrated, maybe angry. Now the smallest thing, for example a child chewing on their pencil, is that final straw we can’t handle, and we blow up or we break into tears. No one knows why we are blowing up. Why we are crying. Our reaction is a complete overreaction to the situation. Often we don’t even realize why we are overreacting. How do we learn to handle these situations better?

    Kelli’s work:

    • Recognize my thoughts and emotions. Twice a day I spend 7 minutes, often in my closet where no one will disturb me, to stop and think. I spend this time listening to my thoughts and feelings. Normally during the day I find other things to keep my focus off my feelings and my problematic thoughts. Forcing myself to slow down and examine myself allows me to be more emotionally stable.

    • Discuss my concerns. I have been working hard to let Nathan know when I have a concern. In the past I felt like bringing up concerns was creating contention - which I didn’t want to do. I am learning that if I bring up a problem before I get upset I am in a better place to have a level headed discussion. Another advantage is that we are both more likely to know exactly what we are discussing instead of having the real reason hidden in the mess of an argument.

    Nathan’s work:

    • Be patient. I have found I need to look outside of the immediate situation. Often when Kelli gets upset my immediate thought is, “she’s crazy!” or “here we go again”. I have learned that often my job is simply to help her think a little more about what she has been thinking about, and take the focus off the immediate situation.
  • Cognitive Flexibility. Our thoughts shouldn’t be written in stone. Change is okay. Things happen and we need to be able to switch what we are thinking or what task we are doing. For some people this is really hard. We fixate on our choice and don’t want to give it up. One recent, but very minor, example from our lives was during our morning routine. Imagine you are putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, and your spouse says, “just a second can I ask you something?” Can you stop and say “sure”, or do you just automatically finish putting the toothpaste on and start to brush your teeth before you can even respond?

    Kelli’s work:

    • Meditate. Part of my meditation practice is learning how to gracefully stop thinking about each new thought as it enters my mind. Doing this allows me to practice interrupting my thoughts.

    • Stop and think. When answering a question I am learning to slow down before I answer. I will often immediately say “I don’t know” or the first thing that comes to my mind. Instead I am learning to be more thoughtful with my answers.

    • See both sides. Other people can’t see inside my head, and I can’t see inside of theirs. I am practicing asking more questions so I can understand other people’s points of view.

    Nathan’s work:

    • Question the answers. As I better understand some of the challenges Kelli has I am getting better at realizing when Kelli is just stuck on a specific thought. At these times I am able to push her to slow down and try to see the bigger picture or see alternative points of view.
  • Attention and Focus. Your attention is like using a flashlight in the dark. You can only focus on what the flashlight is aimed at. As a result, if you aren’t careful about changing your focus, it is easy to get disoriented and lost. Here is a slightly made up example: You go to the kitchen to get a snack. You see the dishes from lunch piled up on the counter. So you fill the sink. As the water is running you notice the dishwasher is finished and you start emptying it. After a few minutes the sink is full so you leave the dishwasher and go back to the dishes. Then the washing machine signals that the laundry needs to be changed and so you head to the laundry room. Pretty soon you have started doing 10 different things and nothing, not even your snack, is complete.

    Kelli’s work:

    • Turn it off. When I have conversations I am learning to flip over my phone or shut my laptop. This stops me from dividing my focus. A bright screen will divert my attention back to it and my brain has trouble concentrating on two things at the same time.

    • Use routines. A routine gives me a set of tasks to complete within a somewhat set amount of time. I know what to do and when. This helps me pay more attention and not be worried about the hundreds of other things I could be doing or what I need to do next. My day flows better and my brain has more energy and focus for other things throughout the day.

    Nathan’s work:

    • Be proactive. It annoys me when I am trying to talk to Kelli and she gets distracted half way through a sentence because her phone, the T.V., or something else has caught her attention. I am continuing to learn to be patient, but I am also learning to help reduce distractions by encouraging her to turn off her phone, picking less distracting places to sit in a restaurant, or reducing the amount of distraction in our house.

Our executive functioning abilities will never be perfect, but we can improve them. Our focus is on helping Kelli improve her executive functions, but as we learn about how to help her, Nathan is also learning how to improve as well.

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We think of the mind like a muscle, and the way you improve a muscle is through exercise, proper nutrition, and rest. In past articles we have talked about how we are working on getting an increased quality and quantity of sleep, improving our eating habits, and working on ways to increase our focus.

As we continue to work on taking better care of our mind we know that our mind’s abilities will continue to improve. We plan to keep talking about executive functioning in future articles. We plan to keep looking for more ways to improve (for example how to reduce the stress and anxiety in our lives that can disrupt our executive functioning abilities). There is lots more for us to learn and we know that all we need to do is to focus on small improvements each day. We can be a little better today than we were yesterday.

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The purpose of “The Couple Project” is to learn more about what makes a strong marriage or relationship. We share what we are learning, which ideas we are trying, and which ideas helped improve our relationship. We realize not everything that works for us will work for you, but we still hope you will find our journey valuable.

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