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Executive Malfunctioning: The Depressed Brain

A few years ago (many years into my mental illness diagnosis), I expressed to my psychiatrist some serious concerns about my memory. I couldn't find the words for normal objects and experiences during conversations. I constantly lost things like keys and pens and books.

He explained that my brain was using nearly all of its resources to stay balanced and keep me alive. Medication was supporting my brain, but during a period of significant depression, my brain lets go of things that aren't life-sustaining, such as concentration, memory, and detail retention.

The fancy phrase for this is executive function. This term encapsulates the steps the brain takes to interact with the world. It includes components like memory, language fluency, organization, cognitive flexibility, and shifting between tasks.

We all have varying baseline levels of executive function, and our own functioning can be influenced by a number of environmental and cognitive factors.

I have learned that executive function is an accurate barometer of my mental health. I notice a huge upswing in functional capacity when I am well-rested and mentally stable and a significant decrease when I am depressed. Here's what that looks like for me:

Increased Function

Diminished Function

More fluent, cohesive conversations

Trouble finding words and telling stories

Sharper focus makes planning possible

Very distractable, can't even make a list

Navigation skills intact

Wrong turns while driving in familiar places

Return things to the proper places

Lose things

Remember and respond to memory tools

(calendar, task list, etc.)

Miss important details in spite of calendars, task lists, etc.

Recently, I had a difficult day. I was extremely irritable but couldn't identify a cause. Since then, I have noticed I'm having trouble with focus. While driving yesterday, I took three wrong turns on the way to the orthodontist we've been seeing for two years. The office is about 2.5 miles from my house and I am very familiar with the area.

That navigational mishap was a huge red flag for my mental health. My brain is not operating normally.

Last week after grocery shopping, I realized I had arrived home without a bag of grocery items. So frustrating!

Today, while looking for the cream cheese I was certain I had purchased last night, my husband found last week's missing bag of food in the car. The yogurt, sour cream, cilantro, and avocado were rotten and smelled foul. How had I not noticed the odor in the car?

Depression can be an invisible illness, and symptoms like diminished executive function can be hard to identify. If you are experiencing these things along with your mental illness, you are not alone! Discussing your functional struggles with a therapist or doctor goes hand in hand with discussing your emotional concerns.

While I certainly feel frustrated at my present level of executive functioning, I've decided to thank my brain. Clearly, it is working hard to help me feel balanced and keep me out of bed.

I'll take that with a bag of rotten groceries any day.


Are you looking for a great tool that will help you talk about mental illness? When Mommy Feels Sad is an illustrated children's book that teaches about depression and the difficult feelings and experiences that go along with it. Start a conversation about depression with your loved one today.

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