Executive Function Deficits & DBT

Not far from my home is a busy, four way street intersection. Throughout the day, cars converge from four different directions. Keeping order on the chaos is a complex traffic light system. Without it, the intersection would become a bottle neck of aggravated drivers each trying to go their own way.

Like the intersection, the brain is made up crisscrossing pathways of information and impulse. The brain controls thousands and thousands of essential functions all at once. Heart rate, respiration, digestion, and on and on. Alongside these life sustaining functions the brain is also responsible for the conscious processes that make us humans different than animals and plants. Memory, logic, problem solving, goal setting are just a few of these functions.

All of these brain functions need coordination. Otherwise, like the intersection near my home, we would be unable to function to the maximum of our abilities. Brain coordination is accomplished through the executive functions, brain functions who keep order so that we can ‘get where’ we wish to get to.

The executive functions include (you can read more about them here):

1. Response Inhibition

2. Working Memory

3. Emotional Control

4. Sustained Attention

5. Task Initiation

6. Planning/Prioritization

7. Organization

8. Time Management

9. Goal-directed persistence

10. Flexibility

11. Metacognition

12. Stress Tolerance

Sometimes however we may have deficits in one or more of these functions. We may have difficulty concentrating on tasks. (Attention Deficit Disorder is the most well known executive function deficit.) Or getting ourselves organized. Or remaining on task. Or we may find ourselves so easily overwhelmed with emotion that we lose the ability to compartmentalize, feeling the need to abandon our goals.

The good news is that like muscles in our arms, our executive functions can be strengthened. There are many effective interventions. Mastery of DBT skills can also help us enhance our executive capabilities. Whether it’s learning the self soothing skills of distress tolerance or how to ground ourselves in the midst of chaos, DBT skills will make it easier to achieve our goals.