Executive Dysfunction and Bipolar Disorder

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Credit to flickr.com user Jeff Peterson. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Do you constantly abandon projects and leave messes around the house, such as unfinished crafts or dirty dishes? If you have bipolar disorder, you may be suffering from executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction is used interchangeably with a lack of cognitive control, and is the inability to set and meet goals and to self-monitor.

When people’s brains work without dysfunction, they can analyze tasks and create timelines in which to complete them. People with executive dysfunction stemming from bipolar disorder, however, are often overwhelmed because they can’t break tasks into steps. Judging from the chaos around the house and the missed doctor’s appointments, people might sometimes blame laziness. But executive dysfunction isn’t laziness; it’s a symptom of a broken brain.

In individuals with bipolar disorder, executive dysfunction appears most prominently during in the manic phase. Racing thoughts, a hallmark of bipolar, tend to interfere with recall and thought organization. The manic person might also have trouble prioritizing important details. Everything is perceived to be important. And for sufferers of bipolar disorder with a history of psychosis, managing executive functioning is even more difficult because their brains are wired differently.

Symptoms of executive dysfunction manifest in children similarly to adults. For example, children often don’t know when they’ve overstayed a welcome at a friend’s house, while adults sometimes can’t function at the workplace due to an inability to read social cues. Children usually can’t follow instructions, and may change to a new task before completing the first one. Adults are frequently late and misplace possessions. If you have trouble remembering the names of people you’ve known for years, you might be suffering from executive dysfunction.

The good news is that executive dysfunction can be managed with ideas like these:

• Consciously break projects up into steps.
• Use time management tools such as colorful calendars and stopwatches.
• Schedule repeating reminders on your computer, using sites like Remember the Milk.
• Set goals in advance to coincide with ingrained habits, such as flossing your teeth right after brushing.

With tips like these, executive dysfunction can be coped with. Many people with bipolar disorder learn to successfully deal with their executive dysfunction.

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About Cassandra Stout

Freelance writer Cassandra Stout blogs at The Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses. She is currently working on Committed, her forthcoming memoir detailing her time spent in a mental hospital while separated from her husband and newborn. Cassandra holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Creative Writing and Journalism, and is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. She balances her literary work with raising her children, feeding her cat, and managing her bipolar disorder.
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6 Responses to Executive Dysfunction and Bipolar Disorder

  1. PurpleOwl says:

    OMG yes! This describes me so much but I’ve never heard that term before ‘executive dysfunction’. I need to look more into this.

  2. dyane says:

    Very interesting, Cass!
    I’ve definitely had executive dysfunction happen when I was manic, but now that I’ve been stable, it has gotten a lot better. I like the tips, and I especially want to check out Remember the Milk site. (What a great name!) Thanks for writing about this topic because I haven’t seen anything like it before.

  3. Raegina says:

    I’ve never heard of this, thanks. I get lost in a stream of consciousness, finding it hard to surface to even think about how to handle mania without external control. Maybe I should print this for the fridge….

    • Oh, yes, it’s extremely common. Executive dysfunction affects people with bipolar disorder, ADHD, and autism. I’d recommend looking up the Wikipedia article on the subject; it’s fascinating!

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