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How to Cope with Executive Dysfunction After Brain Injury

young African American woman smiling and waving

Executive dysfunction after brain injury can impacts everything from how you make plans to how you socialize with others. It’s enormous effect on quality of life makes it essential to get proper diagnosis, treatment, and management.

To help you determine if you are experiencing executive dysfunction after brain injury, this article will explain the most common symptoms. You’ll also learn some effective ways to cope with the difficulties that accompany executive dysfunction.

What Is Executive Dysfunction After Brain Injury?

Executive functions refer to a set of higher cognitive skills that help individuals interact purposefully with the world around them. They are what allow you to learn new things and manage daily life.

Examples of executive functions include:

  • Planning and organizing
  • Making decisions
  • Self-awareness
  • Understanding social cues

There are many more executive functions than these four, but this should give you an idea of just how important they are for activities of daily living.

Most of us never think of these actions as “skills” since they come naturally to us. But in reality they require complex cognitive activity.

If an injury damages the frontal lobe, any one of these skills could become impaired. As a result, you can experience executive dysfunction.

Signs of Executive Dysfunction After Brain Injury

Executive dysfunction can affect every aspect of a person’s life, from their organization skills to their interpersonal relationships.

The following are a few signs of executive dysfunction that can occur after brain injury.

Lack of Motivation and Initiation

depressed-looking girl leaning over railing which could signify executive dysfunction after tbi

Have you noticed that it is much harder to get motivated and start a new activity ever since your brain injury?

Don’t worry, you haven’t become lazy. This is one of the most common signs of executive dysfunction after brain injury.

Lack of motivation (also known as adynamia) usually occurs after damage to the frontal lobe. Symptoms of adynamia can include watching TV all day and social isolation.

In severe cases, the person can struggle to perform basic self-care tasks such as showering and taking medication.

While adynamia can look a lot like depression, it is not a psychological illness. Rather, lack of motivation stems from several cognitive deficits, such as poor problem solving skills and memory problems.

Loss of Organization and Planning Skills

Executive dysfunction also causes a person to have trouble planning out the steps needed to accomplish a goal. As a result, they usually get overwhelmed and give up.

Some signs that you may be struggling with poor organizational skills include:

  • Difficulty starting or finishing a task
  • Putting off work or assignments until the very last minute
  • Easily distracted
  • Poor time management
  • Difficulty working on more than one thing at a time

Poor organization can also be a symptom of cognitive fatigue after brain injury. Cognitive fatigue means your brain does not have the energy needed to function efficiently.

Inflexible Thoughts and Actions

couple arguing with each other

Difficulties changing plans or changing opinions are another effect of executive dysfunction after brain injury. Depending on how severe the brain injury was, this mental rigidity can manifest as aggressive behavior or even violent outbursts.

It’s important for family members to remember that this stubborness is not the person’s fault, but an effect of their brain injury. A neuropsychologist can help them find effective coping methods for this effect. It will take a lot of work, but it is possible for TBI patients to learn how to handle unexpected circumstances again.

In addition, reducing stress, getting enough sleep and exercise, and eating healthy can all help reduce the severity of rigid behavior. As one brain injury survivor puts it:

“When I take care of my body, the physical factors that contribute to rigidity don’t have a chance to get a foothold.”

For family members, it’s important to stay patient and help the person find healthy ways to deal with change.

Impulsivity and Social Difficulties

young man with sunglasses on and tongue sticking out

Finally, executive dysfunction after brain injury affects a person’s self-awareness and can lead to disinhibition.

Areas of the brain involved in regulating behavior include the gyrus rectus and the insula, both located in the frontal lobe. Damage to both of these areas is associated with greater disinhibition.

Signs of disinhibition after brain injury can range from laughing at inappropriate times to uncontrollable bursts of rage. Some people will struggle with aggressive behavior, while others might seem overly friendly.

Other common symptoms of disinhibition include:

  • Tactless or inappropriate remarks
  • Impulsive decisions
  • Divulging personal information to strangers
  • Agreeing to a task they cannot complete

While disinhibition after brain injury can cause serious problems, with the help of counseling, it is possible for a person to regain control of their most harmful behavior.

Coping With Executive Dysfunction After Brain Injury

Executive dysfunction can make daily tasks more difficult. Fortunately, there are methods you can use to cope with these difficulties. These include:

  • Find external motivation. Since executive function causes problems with finding internal motivation, it can help to use external forms of motivation to compensate. For example, ask a loved one or friend to take you to your therapy appointments even when you don’t feel like it. Sometimes having someone else come to your house and pick you up can give you an extra dose of motivation that your brain can’t quite supply on its own.
  • Break down activities into steps. Sit down with someone else and try to come up with a step-by-step plan for whatever goal you might have. To stay on track, write it down and cross off every step you complete. You can also keep checklists around the house. For example, have one in the kitchen so you can remember the sequences you need to follow to prepare a meal.
  • Create signals. For impulsive behavior, work with your loved ones to create a special “stop and think” signal that they can flash at you when you are doing something inappropriate or dangerous. This can help you retrain yourself to not make so many mistakes.

These are just a few examples of some techniques you can use to manage executive function. For more coping methods, talk to a neuropsychologist.

Executive Dysfunction and TBI

Executive function is something we all take for granted. As a result, we can easily forget that these skills require a healthy brain to perform them and make unfair judgments on those who struggle with them.

That’s why it’s so important to educate others about executive dysfunction, and to help those suffering its effects find ways to cope. With the help of doctors and therapists familiar with executive dysfunction, many people have been able to find effective ways to manage their difficulties.

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