Finding Motivation Through the Brain Fog: Managing Low Executive Function Days
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many folks experiencing executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction can accompany various psychological conditions or injuries; and the reality is, many of us will face some degree of executive dysfunction in our lives (1). Executive functions include our ability to self-regulate, plan and prioritize, and manage working memory, among others. Working memory is simply our brain’s ability to hold different information at one time. Think of executive functions as the managers in the front of your brain that work together to get things done.
Many of the clients I support live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and corresponding executive function challenges. But don’t let the name deceive you. ADHD is more about challenges with self-regulation than attention and focus (2) . People with ADHD also experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) at a higher rate than the general population; even more so for women (3). Depressive symptoms can also contribute to executive dysfunction, making this time of year especially challenging for many.
Periods of executive dysfunction can negatively affect motivation and self-regulation, which can impact our ability to work, take care of things at home, and even impair relationships. And because January is known as the most depressing month of the year, I have gathered some strategies I often use with my clients to cope with periods of low executive function and take care of ourselves the best we can.
- Ease perfectionism — your efforts are enough, especially on hard days. Perfectionism and shame work in a loop; fortunately, this loop can be disrupted by practicing self-compassion and awareness. Perfectionistic tendencies and shame can wreak havoc on motivation and often stops us in our tracks before we even start! Learn more about perfectionism and shame here, and self-compassion here.
- Feed your brain and body efficiently. Our appetite and ability to feed ourselves often suffer on difficult days. Don’t make these days any more difficult than they need to be! Coming up with efficient go-to systems for hard days can include low effort foods that are easy to prepare (bonus points if it’s prep-free!) and don’t require a lot of energy to consume. Consider working with a dietician who works specifically with executive dysfunction to create a system that works for you if you need more support in this area.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself using the “one thing” system: if you could do one thing to help you feel better now, what would that be? That one thing is enough for the day if that is all you have the capacity for. What I find works well for many of my clients is making a list. I know, it sounds simple. But gathering the energy to organize your thoughts alone is a daunting task and often keeps us in a state of task paralysis until we are able to make small movements.
- Start using a blank page and write your tasks and/or worries in no particular order.
- Once you have run out of ideas, take a break and come back to it when you discover more things you may have forgotten.
- Later, begin to prioritize what is on your list
- Start with a low effort, rewarding task. This is something you define. For me, it’s starting a load of laundry.
- Once the motivation ball is rolling, task paralysis starts to dissipate and you can begin higher priority tasks.
- Pro-tip: don’t overdo it. Task hyperfocus is real and can deplete our energy quickly. If you aren’t taking breaks, your brain is not recuperating. Use timers if time-blindness is a challenge for you.
The “one-thing” system is individual to you and may not be a list or prioritization. This is where self-awareness comes into play — get to know what works for you and keep track of these systems to keep them working.
- Social support and body-doubling: we tend to withdraw from others when we feel low and unmotivated. Try your best to reach out to a trusted support person who understands how difficult days affect you. Humans are social beings, and sometimes we can gain energy simply by working alongside someone who is engaged in a task. This is also known as body doubling and can be a useful system for low motivation.
- Refuel your dopamine: this is the fun part. Neurochemicals dopamine and norepinephrine play a major role in self-regulation, reward and motivation. It is difficult to find motivation if we can’t experience reward. Thankfully, we can find dopamine in our environment by following a Dopamenu. This system was coined by Jessica McCabe and Eric Tivers and breaks down helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) choices to increase pleasure and reward. The key here is to get to know (here we are at self-awareness again) what activities work best for you and keep track of these things. For help getting started, check out this template.
You may notice that some of these strategies focus on adopting systems rather than changing thoughts. Using systems to change our environment are often very effective if you struggle with executive dysfunction. This list is not exhaustive but should help to get the proverbial ball rolling on days where the ball weighs a tonne. And although the size of the ball may be out of our control, the systems and supports we have behind it can help it feel less heavy.
SAD can seriously impact our lives. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of SAD, please get in touch with your health care provider and mental health clinician. You don’t have to do this alone.
- Barkley, R. The 30 Essential Ideas Every Parent Needs to Know. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCAGc-rkIfo
Brushing Up on Personal Boundaries
It’s hard to believe we are already nearing the end of 2021. The holiday season is right around the corner and this can lead to many mixed emotions and overwhelm. That said, this is a great time to improve or brush up on boundary setting in your personal relationships with your partner, family, friends, and in the workplace.
What are “boundaries” and why do healthy boundaries matter?
Adopting healthy boundaries protects your emotional well-being to prevent emotional and physical burnout, and social isolation. Boundaries, like a fence with a gate, are the limits and expectations you set for yourself and others and are enforced using effective communication. Think of the gate as the communication gateway and the fence as your limits and expectations.
Here are some key take-aways from boundary work:
It can feel messy at times
- If saying “no” rarely exists in your conversations or you’re feeling enmeshed in your personal relationships, introducing this assertive communication style may feel unnatural at first (and that’s ok)
What are your values?
- Ask yourself: “Am I respecting my own values?” If your boundaries do not align with your values you may feel stressed, anxious, or hold resentment toward others
- What limits and expectations do you need to set for yourself in family relationships, at your job, in your friendships, and within your community?
- Check out this values exploration exercise
When boundaries become inconsistent or inflexible
- Boundaries can be soft or porous, and you may find that you are not putting your needs first
- On the other hand, certain boundaries may be rigid, and you may find yourself guarded in relationships
- Healthy boundaries align with your values, and you will be comfortable saying “no” when you need to, and hearing “no” from others
- Boundary types look different for everyone and can be soft in some areas of your life and rigid in others.
- Saying “no” asserts your needs while valuing your relationships.
- Being assertive involves communicating needs with kindness and respect for others, vulnerability, and self-worth and self-respect
Poor boundaries can be a result of insecure attachment in childhood, complex trauma, low self-esteem or self-worth, amongst other reasons. And they may have served a purpose for you at one point in your life to provide a sense of safety and security. If you’re noticing that your boundaries are no longer serving you, we can help.
As always, if you need support in navigating interpersonal relationships and boundary setting, please reach out. Remember to be kind to yourself as you reflect on your relationships.
Click here for a free worksheet and handout through Therapist Aid.
References and Additional Reading:
Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day – Anne Kathrine, MABoundaries: Where You End and I Begin by Anne Katherine, MA
“Boundaries 101”. The Calm Mama Method. thecalmmamamethod.com
Attached – Amir Levine, MD, & Rachel S.F. Heller, MA
“Boundaries and the Self”. Dr. Arielle Schwart. https://drarielleschwartz.com/boundaries-and-the-self-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.YYrkEBrMJnI
“Setting Boundaries and Setting Limits”. R. Skip Johnson https://bpdfamily.com/content/setting-boundariesLearn More
Co-regulation: What you (and your child) need right now
Our ability to regulate ourselves as adults comes down to two basic, yet challenging, abilities: attention and emotion regulation. These abilities are less developed in children; so why is co-regulation so difficult for us parents?
When we talk about self-regulation, it speaks to our ability to manage our own emotions and thoughts. This regulation is not just about our own intentions. It is also influenced by many things around us including our families, friends, jobs or other environments we may have both negative and positive interactions.
Co-regulation means we are able to regulate our own emotions as parents. This allows us to model and reflect appropriate emotions to our children, encouraging them to explore their own feelings. Becoming a parent, however, can bring up a lot of new and old feelings that make it difficult to get on our child’s level. This is really normal. And when we notice these red flags, it can allow us to address those emotions and experiences, further showing our kids we can show up for ourselves and make changes too.
Coregulation can be age-specific, but the foundations are applicable for parents raising children at any age:
- Unconditional positive regard – regardless of your child’s age, warmth and responsiveness is key to providing and modelling a trusting relationship. This allows your child to recognize that in a time of need, their caregiver will commit to respectful communication and investment into the child’s interests and challenges. Essentially, unconditional love fosters long-standing commitment and understanding.
- Pave the path – our environment can be stressful, and so can our children’s. With a degree of structure and predictability, coregulation allows overwhelming stressors to take less of a toll on our children’s well-being. Feelings of authentic security provide our children with an understanding of the expectations of the parent-child relationship and its associated consequences. We as parents model what our children can expect from future relationships and how to connect with others.
- Modelling is key – this step is integral to how we approach coregulation. It goes without saying that leading the way gives children the opportunity for growth.
It is important to remember that children will make mistakes throughout the learning process, as will parents. If you are a parent that struggles with co-regulation, you’re not alone. This is a challenging experience in which we feel unprepared. Help is available if you aim to gain new skills to help you with self-regulation or co-regulation.
Our therapists are available to support you through this journey and are skilled in assisting individuals at their level of growth.
Murray, D. W., & Rosanbalm, K. (2017). Promoting Self-Regulation in Adolescents and Young Adults: A Practice Brief. OPRE Report 2015-82. Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation from https://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/Co-RegulationFromBirthThroughYoungAdulthood.pdfLearn More
Day Nine – Pressing the Re-Set Button on Your Family Life During Social Isolation
Recognize that this is hard. These days may seem long. Making all the lists in the world does not help the work get done, the structure implemented and the values applied. Some days will just suck.
Moods, loneliness even when amongst the family, loss or reduction of connections with peers, sports, teachers, co-workers will take its toll. Recognize this and take a break. Pyjama days, Netflix marathons or extra screen time will be necessary. And that is ok. Fatigue will set in. Neither parents nor kids are required to be perfect. Just stop doing for a while.
These days are a gift (even though some days that feels like a stretch). Never before have we collectively had such a large chunk of time where we are ALL at home, without the normal day-to-day pressures being applied. It takes a while to get out of the achievement headspace (I MUST do something, I NEED to do this, I HAVE to get this done). Relax. Forgive yourself. We have NEVER BEEN THROUGH A PANDEMIC BEFORE! This is a choose your own adventure kind of thing!
Keep an eye out for emotions and talk about them. It will not be uncommon for many people (adults and kids alike) to feel sad, lonely, depressed and hopeless. This will happen, even in a house full of people who love us. Encourage connections with friends, co-workers and extended family. Ride the waves of emotions, and remember, that professional help is still out there, offered virtually.Learn More
Day Eight – Pressing the Re-Set Button on Your Family Life During Social Isolation
Prioritize humour and fun. Does your family love to laugh? I mean REALLY laugh? What makes the family laugh? “Dad” jokes? That elusive TV show or comedy that everyone can agree on? When my children were little, they had a hard time understanding why other families do not have “dance parties” in their kitchens and living rooms. The ability to be silly and “dance like nobody (except your immediate family who will laugh until they cry at mom’s moves) is watching builds connection, self-esteem and even risk-taking in a safe environment.
Give everyone a chance to dictate how the fun is incorporated into the daily routine. For example, my family each gets time to be “the DJ” when we are listening to music (or dancing). You can also choose games, activities, crafts, etc. as a way to learn about what each of you finds fun while teaching that we need to respect that we are all different and that learning something new is a good thing.
There have been some really funny (and accurate) YouTube videos on “COVID Coping” that are family-friendly. Take a look and laugh at yourselves!Learn More
Day Seven – Team Meetings: The Weekly Check-In
When a family spends time together, they learn about each other.
One simple way is to ask the “what as good about your day? What was not so good about your day?” questions, going around the table at dinner. This facilitates conversation and gives everyone a chance to share. Even though our worlds are much smaller, you will be surprised at how everyone has had ups and downs. As parents, use this to stay in tune with what your kids are feeling, how they are experiencing this situation, and what they need from you and each other.
And YES, work really hard to eat together. It should be MUCH easier now, as nobody is going anywhere. Make eating together a top priority TODAY. A structured conversation will help identify holes and challenges in our family rules and values and will help you relax or tighten them up where needed.
We have gone through the stages of grief in mourning the loss of our “normal” everyday. We are now several weeks into this isolation, and my guess is, you are settling into the “new normal”.
Most families suffer due to a lack of structure and routine. Have a family meeting to build a VERY SIMPLE daily schedule. What needs to be included? Basic needs of course, but what about exercise, creative time, academics? Set and enforce a schedule, and don’t be afraid to use technology to help with this (family schedules, setting timers, making lists, etc.). Don’t forget to schedule fun. Lots and lots of fun.Learn More
Day Six – Moving From the Me to We
Team Building: Your family is a “We”. End of story. Even when you disagree, you fight, are hurt or overwhelmed, your family has your back. Talk about how each family member likes and needs to be supported. To borrow from John Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, learn the ways each member of your family wants and needs to feel appreciated and loved.
- Words of affirmation: showing love through how you speak, using words of encouragement, gratitude, positive reinforcement. How you speak to someone who needs words of affirmation can go a long way toward helping them feel appreciated.
- Quality time: Showing love by giving someone your full attention, by making an effort to spend time doing things they love to do. Carving out time shows you are interested and attentive.
- Receiving gifts: Showing love through small tokens of appreciation or gifts, such as a cup of tea, some flowers, chocolate…something that shows that person you know what they like. Making this person feel special will help them know they are in your thoughts.
- Physical touch: Hugs and kisses, hand-holding, a back rub all go a long way for someone who needs physical touch to feel loved and appreciated
- Acts of service: Doing nice things to help the other person out such as unloading the dishwasher, putting gas in their car, taking the garbage out. This person needs help with the overwhelm to know you care.
The biggest mistake most of us make is assuming our partners, kids, friends, etc. speak the same language as we do. We think we are doing nice things to show we care, and they seem to fall flat. That is because we are doing what WE would like to have done for us.
This applies to both adults and kids! Talk about what each of you needs and wants in order to feel heard, special, appreciated and loved! It is amazing how relationships can be strengthened when you speak the other person’s love language.Learn More
Day Five – Assessing Your Communication Strategies: Aim To Cultivate Understanding
Think about how your family communicates. Do you listen to respond, or do you listen to really listen? Think about it.
Learning how to be a good listener means shutting your mouth. Enough said. Try it. Interrupters unite! I come from a long line of interrupters. If you need a “talking stick” (or hockey puck, stuffed animal, etc), get one! Whoever holds the speaking object has the floor.
Next, think about how you show others that you are listening. Do you nod, paraphrase their statements, state your understanding, empathize? The ways in which you show family members that their stories, their experiences, their feelings are important will begin to cultivate understanding, create connection and attachment.Learn More
Day Four – Bumps in the Road: Applying Values and Family Rules to Your Day to Day.
This is the hard part. Start by acknowledging that NOBODY is perfect.
Parents will screw up, and kids will screw up. When we are hurt, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, we are ripe for screw-ups. Think about this (and teach your kids to as well). When you are feeling like you are “losing it”, ask yourself these HALT questions:
Am I Hungry
Am I Angry
Am I Lonely
Am I Tired
I also add an “O”…Am I Overwhelmed!
If you are any one, a few, or ALL of the above, walk away and don’t try to hash it out. Talk about this, and think about the concepts of emotional regulation and forgiveness. Can you make it acceptable and even encouraged to “walk away” from a disagreement or conflict without being accused of avoiding? Calmer heads prevail. How families manage conflict is a life-long lesson that will foster communication, connection and will serve children well outside of the family.
Are you someone who feels the need to “hash it out” when there is a disagreement, or are you someone who needs to “walk away” and think?Learn More
Day Three – Pressing the Re-Set Button on Your Family Life During Social Isolation
READ THIS IF YOU HAVE SCHOOL AGE KIDDOS AND/OR TEENS
Talk, talk, and talk. Have a chat about how the kids think parents can help them develop these values and the habits that go with them. Start with brainstorming and then move to develop some concrete rules around conduct and behaviour in the home. Parents, be vulnerable. Share how it is hard for you to maintain the self-discipline to “walk the walk” every day. Share your struggles and make yourself human. This is especially applicable to parents of school-age children and teens. Let your kids contribute! LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN, parents. You will learn a lot about your kids if you ask them to contribute and you exercise your parenting muscle to set boundaries that fit your values. Stand strong. The kids will resist. But it is time to re-define normal and re-set the boundaries in your home.
READ THIS IF YOU HAVE LITTLES
Parents of little ones are not getting a break from parenting. It is little ones, sun up (or before) to sundown (or after). You have lost your extended family connections and external supports such as daycare, and you and the kids are feeling this. Think about using technology to help foster the connection, and hopefully give you a break. Have grandma read a book or tell a story on facetime, do regular activities over facetime that your kids enjoy…baking, colouring and crafting. ASK. FOR. HELP. Don’t be a hero. Ask those who you love for some facetime or an ear. Talk about what you are feeling. Share these thoughts with your support system. But try not to focus on the negative too much. Tell friends and family about the funny stuff the kids did, and listen to their stories as well. We know this isn’t much. We know this isn’t the level of connection you have enjoyed. But we have to focus on re-defining our expectations.
Talk to your spouse, or even text when you have a free minute, as you might not get a good chunk of time to hash out this heavy stuff. Even little tidbits of info will help you develop a better understanding of your values as a couple, the discrepancies you may note from your families of origin and then develop a value system that is right for YOUR family.
Time for a reminder here. What we are all being asked to do right now is REALLY, REALLY HARD.