Hacking Your Executive Function: What the Heck is Inhibition?

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Welcome to part two of Hacking Your Executive Function! This week we’re going to be talking about something that’s relatively new to me: inhibition! I’m so excited to jump in and explore. Similar to Emotion Regulation, we’re going to start with an overview of what this is, why we might want to practice it, how it’s related to executive function, and what the skill does for us.

At its most basic, inhibition is the ability to decide what you do and don’t want to do. It means controlling your automatic or impulsive behaviors and creating behaviors that you want through attention and reasoning. That can be a lot of things: the ability to focus your thoughts and attention on specific things and ignore distractions; or motor control that keeps you from bouncing your leg when bored and anxious; or on a behavioral level choosing not to yell when you’re frustrated. Inhibition is also closely related to building and breaking habits. It’s what allows us to break habits we don’t like and helps us build the habits we do want. It is resisting temptations and ignoring distractions.

Inhibition is one of the very basic forms of executive function. It involves noticing the behaviors and thoughts that you’re having, connecting them to your values and long term goals, and then making plans and initiating the course of action that you do want. There’s a lot contained there, so part of these posts will be breaking down inhibition into different components and finding ways to notice where you’re struggling.

One thing that I want to make super clear is that the type of inhibition that I’m talking about here is an internal skill that someone chooses to engage in. Especially when it comes to autism, ADHD, or other neurodivergences, it is incredibly common for parents, caregivers, teachers, and other authority figures to demand that an individual change or give up certain behaviors. That is NOT what I am promoting here. Instead, what I would like to focus on is skills that will help an individual achieve their own goals, diminish the stress of feeling distracted or out of control, and give an individual the option to choose behaviors that they want.

So we are NOT talking about stamping out your stims but we ARE talking about learning how to better ignore that annoying buzz from the radiator. Sometimes this does mean not doing something that is super fun and choosing to do something less fun, but it’s always to reach the goal that you want to achieve.

I like to think of inhibitory control as your inner parent. This is the part of your brain that helps you balance what you want with what you need, and gives you rules and schedules to keep you on track. It’s the part of you that says “yeah, ice cream for dinner might feel nice now but when you get sick to your stomach in two hours it won’t be so great.” Sometimes it can help to imagine or visualize this part of yourself so that you can have a specific voice or face that acts as the parent. I also like to visualize the more childlike parts of myself so that I can understand what I WANT as well as what I should be doing.

So for example I imagine my child self. This is the part of me that wants to explore, have fun, try new things, be colorful, be loud, and act impulsively. There are elements of this that are very important, and that child self can give me important information when I feel as if I need to be taken care of.

I also imagine that I’ve got a more teenaged self. This is someone who is driven and wants to accomplish, be recognized, be perfect, and fit in. This version of me has a great deal of anxiety and is often too hard on myself, convinced that any rest is bad.

My parent self is the one who balances those two and adds in my long term values, pays attention to emotions, notices what other people are feeling and what they need, and tries to find solutions that will balance all of this. It’s the one that can tell my child self “we’ll do that later but right now we need to take care of work”. It’s also the part of me that can break down any act of inhibition to notice where I’m struggling.

The final section of this blog post will give you an outline of the steps it takes to inhibit a behavior and thus the different places that it can go wrong.

The first step of inhibition is noticing a behavior or thought that you don’t want. Sometimes you’ll notice later that you did something you didn’t want to do (like if you reacted with extreme anger to someone and later feel remorse about it) whereas other times you’ll know in the moment (when you look at the chocolate cake and think “hey, I’m trying not to eat so much sugar” and then you eat it anyway). In both cases it can be beneficial to try to give yourself some time in the moment to not just be aware of the behavior or thought but to take time to consider your options.

The next step would be to gather data. What are your long term goals and what action in the moment will help you achieve them (your shoulds). What do you want to do (your wants). What would be the impact of doing what you want vs. what you should? Will other people be impacted? Will it have negative consequences for you down the line?

Then you can brainstorm solutions. That might be finding a course of action that satisfies should and want. It might be giving yourself a time to fulfill your wants later but doing the shoulds right now. Or maybe you decide that you’ve been doing a lot of should and right now want will be better for you.

Finally you can go ahead and do the thing!

In the next few days I’ll be talking through how you can get better at each of these steps, whether that’s identifying problems, making a decision in the moment, or finding the motivation to do the should when you’d rather do the want. Join me!

Hacking Your Executive Function Part 1: Emotion Regulation Definitions and Basics

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Fun life updates! I’m currently working on a book about executive functioning, and because of the time commitment I’m struggling to blog as much as I’d like. So instead of trying to do both, I’m going to combine them into one super writing THING that hopefully will help me continue writing regularly while also developing the ideas I want for my book. Boom.

I’m going to start this week by giving you an overview of the tips and tricks that I use for emotion regulation. What does that have to do with executive functioning? Well executive functioning is all the skills we use to plan and organize ourselves and the world around us, which includes our emotions. That means that understanding and regulating our emotions is actually a major part of executive functioning. I’ve encountered a few people who push back on the idea that it falls into the same category as planning and organization or time management, but it actually relies on many of the same skills.

First a quick definition. This one is fairly easy and self explanatory: emotion regulation is the ability to regulate your own emotions. Every day we have emotions and have to learn how to respond to them, how to manage them, and how to cope with difficult situations. Some of our responses are healthy and others are not. We’re going to be focused on healthy emotion regulation.

Emotion regulation is important in its own right: it’s exhausting, time consuming, and sometimes downright dangerous to use unhealthy coping mechanisms (see: drug or alcohol abuse, impulsive behavior, self harm, eating disorders). Always having your emotions at an extremely high level, or pushing them away and never feeling them at all takes a lot of energy and is honestly just deeply unpleasant. But in addition to that, emotion regulation is a really important base for a lot of other executive functioning skills. It’s very hard to effectively plan and organize your day, to do your work, to focus on a task, or to keep track of time if you’re overwhelmed with sadness. Keeping your emotions at a level that feels reasonable to you and that doesn’t keep you from achieving your other goals is an important purpose for emotion regulation.

This week I’ll be sharing a series of posts about ways to do emotion regulation, so for today’s post I’m going to stick to some of the very, very basics. These are Olivia’s hottest of hot tips, the easiest ways to keep your emotions reasonably stable, or at least to give yourself a leg up at keeping your emotions stable. If someone asks me “Olivia, I feel like poop/I can’t focus/I can’t manage my sensory input/there’s something about my brain that feels bad and I don’t like it” this is literally always the first thing that I tell them.

Your body affects your brain.

Seems obvious, but sometimes we forget that when our bodies feel like poop our emotions tend to feel like poop. So if you want a strong base for your emotions, do the very simple, very basic things that will help your body feel reasonably good and healthy.

-Eat food on a regular basis, and have some vegetables sometimes. You don’t have to have a perfect diet but definitely make sure you’re getting in a couple good meals a day and that you’re not ONLY eating sugar or snacks.

-Sleep enough. Whatever that means to you. Prioritize it. It’s not exciting or fun, but without it nothing will be exciting or fun.

-Move your body. You don’t have to be an exercise freak or super fit, but go for a dang walk a few times a week, or find something that you enjoy that gets you standing up and moving around. Bonus points if you can go outside when you do it.

-Take medications as prescribed. If you’ve got brain meds this is obvious, but taking meds for physical ailments is also super important because physical pain and discomfort really makes a person cranky (what a surprise). I’ll also add that something to pay attention to here is alcohol or recreational drugs. I’m not going to say never ever use either of those things, but be highly aware of how you’re using them and how often.

-If you’re sick take care of yourself. Go to the doctor, rest, fluids, blah blah blah. But don’t try to push through illness for no reason (I say this as I’m working while trying to ignore a cold, so I understand that this is easier said than done).

Even if you do nothing else that anyone ever recommends for keeping your emotions regulated, these things will bring that base level of stability up and give you more energy to deal with emotions. It turns out that being super hungry affects your mood, or never getting enough sleep can make you really crabby, or sitting for hours and hours at a time can leave you feeling depressed. Mind blowing, I know.