Executive functioning is an important mental process that allows individuals to make plans, focus their attention, remember multi-step instructions, use self-regulation, and keep track of various tasks. Additionally, executive functioning involves numerous other normal cognitive functions such as prioritizing, time management, and impulse control. Impairments in executive functioning skills may also lead to other disabilities, such as dyscalculia, a disability that makes it difficult to perform mathematics.
Without executive functioning skills, it would be incredibly difficult to perform the tasks of daily living. For example, individuals who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have a hard time managing their time and completing multiple tasks at once. However, there are plenty of ways to improve executive functioning skills. Executive functions can be impacted by addiction and may need to be strengthened during the recovery process.1
Executive dysfunction is a term used to describe cognitive, emotional, and behavioral challenges that are generally associated with injury or impairment of the frontal lobes of the brain. Because the frontal lobes of the brain are associated with executive functioning skills, damage to this area—whether it be from injury or changes in the brain brought on by substance abuse—can make it challenging to manage the aspects of daily living.2
Many skills coincide with exceptive functioning. To gain a better understanding of these executive functioning skills and to explain why these skills are important, we have defined each of these skills here. Executive function is important in self-regulation, cognitive skills, working memory, and organization and planning.
Self-regulation refers to the ability to maintain control of one’s and actions. With this skill, individuals can control impulsive actions, set priorities, create goals, and complete tasks. Additionally, self-regulation will help people maintain control of their emotions and the way they react to certain circumstances.
Working memory is the ability to retain information in our brains and easily access it. Unlike long-term memory that individuals may need to spend time retrieving, working memory is the ability to take in new information and use problem-solving techniques, comprehension, and reasoning skills to learn and understand the information.3
Executive functioning is directly related to cognitive skills because, without executive functioning skills, individuals have a hard time maintaining attention and tuning out irrelevant information, noises, and other distractions. Additionally, the cognitive skills that are impacted include mental flexibility, which refers to one’s ability to switch from one task to the next.4
Organization and planning are directly impacted by executive functioning skills. For example, individuals need to be able to prioritize, estimate the time it takes to complete tasks, and juggle multiple tasks in an organized manner. Because of this aspect, organization and planning go hand in hand with executive functioning skills.4
Addiction has numerous negative effects on executive functioning skills. Not only does addiction impact self-regulation, cognitive skills, working memory, and organization and planning, but memory, motor, skills, and even psychological development will be impacted as well.
Therapeutic educational consultants who work with people struggling with substance abuse have noticed that there is a distinct emotional and psychological freeze due to addiction. The freeze generally begins at the age that the individual began using and impacts the development of these areas until the usage stops. When an individual recovers, they find that they are developmentally behind and have very little success in regaining the experiences they lost.5
Memory, especially working memory, can be impacted by marijuana and alcohol. When individuals use these substances, they may suffer from short-term memory loss. Additionally, prolonged usage may impair working memory skills.5 Along with potentially developing a learning disability, such as dyscalculia, memory may be impacted.
People who struggle with substance use will also experience decreases in their motor ability, which is their ability to control large or small muscles. While gross motor skills refer to the movement of larger body parts, such as limbs, fine motor skills refer to more precise muscle movements, such as using fingers to pick up a pencil.6
Executive functioning has been an important topic in recent research in psychology. Because executive functioning skills pertain to numerous aspects of daily living, it is becoming an incredibly important area for researchers to not only understand but to develop appropriate interventions. Recently, studies involving brain scams an MRI imaging have shed some light on executive functioning skills.
Recent studies have shown that there is a distinct change in the human brain as an individual abuses substances. Brain scans have shown that there is impaired neural circuitry in the prefrontal cortex. As discussed above, the prefrontal cortex is the main area associated with executive functioning, so it should be no surprise that executive functioning is impacted by substance use.7
Several research studies have shown that substance use has a direct impact on cognitive abilities. Not only does it impact cognitive skills such as planning and organization, prioritizing, mental fluidity, and more, but the substances will change brain wiring and can take significant amounts of time to return to normal functioning.8
Because researchers and psychologists now know that executive function is impacted by substance use, many interventions and treatments have been proposed and tried to improve executive functioning skills. However, it can be difficult to properly measure the impacts of these interventions as well as testing executive function. More research is needed in this area, and there are now several tests that can measure executive functioning skills in adolescents and adults.9
Because executive functioning is critical to performing daily living tasks, many tests have been created to evaluate the specific abilities that are categorized under the umbrella of executive functioning skills.
The Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA) can be used to test attention in children. The TOVA will show children various letters on a screen, and they will be asked to press a key on a keyboard every time a certain letter appears. Additionally, the Conners Continuous Performance Test II (CPT II) does the opposite and asks the participant to press a key every time a certain letter is not on the screen.
The Stroop Color and Word Test is commonly used in both children and adults to measure the inhibitory control period. This test focuses on an individual’s ability to imagine a scenario and think through one’s actions before giving a response. Additionally, the test measures the ability of an individual to evaluate stimuli and focus on a single characteristic.
Certain subtests on the Intelligence Test for Children (WISC), including Digit Span, look at an individual’s ability to remember a string of numbers in order and reverse order. It tests the individual ability to remember these numbers and their ability to repeat them back in the correct order.
The Tower of Hanoi assessment looks at an individual’s ability to plan, sequence, and organized various information to solve problems. In addition to assessing organization and planning, it can also evaluate working memory and inhibitory control.10
To address impairments in executive functioning skills, a professional, such as educational consultants or therapeutic educational consultants, may be contacted. With the help from these professionals, people who have trouble with executive functioning and dyscalculia can improve their skills.
Cognitive-behavioral interventions can be effective in the treatment of individuals with executive functioning challenges. With this type of intervention, a therapist will work with the client and identify any challenges with their executive functions. Then they will work together to strengthen any areas that need additional support and come up with a plan to help the individual improve their skills.
Several types of therapists, such as educational consultants and therapeutic educational consultants, can be tasked with working with a child or adult to improve executive functioning skills. These individuals typically help to identify the patterns of strengths and weaknesses that the individual possesses and comes up with potential interventions and a plan to help them improve their executive functions and other potential deficits.10