Do you ever find yourself thinking “gosh, my memory is terrible as of late”, “I seem to be struggling more than ever to focus”, “my head is so foggy” or “why can’t I think clearly?” These thoughts can often lead us to think the worst about our cognitive functioning, or even attribute our difficulties to something more medical. What if I told you that a common contributing factor to our cognitive functioning, specifically our executive functioning, is our mood.
When I say executive functioning, I am referring to those higher-level cognitive skills that we use such as generating plans, organisation, self-monitoring, managing and prioritizing time, using self-control, managing emotions, making decisions, focusing/attention, and remembering (working memory). When talking about mood, the focus within this conversation is depressed mood, keeping in mind that severity of symptoms of depressed mood corresponds with greater difficulties with executive functioning.
So how does mood affect cognition? Mood influences what we think about and how efficiently our thought processes proceed. There has been a body of research in functional neuroimaging which have indicated that the anatomical basis of ‘sad mood’, or depression and cognitive processing have a significant overlap. This means that the areas of overlap in the brain modulated by depression and cognition interact and share a neural ‘architecture’. For example, activity in the prefrontal cortex, the front part of your brain, is associated with the set of higher-level cognitive skills or ‘executive functions’ we were talking about earlier which is altered by depression.
In saying this, and which brings us back to our initial statements and question, “I am struggling to focus”, and “why can’t I think clearly?” Not all people with executive functioning difficulties have low mood or depression. There are definitely other factors that could be at play, but it can be useful to be mindful and observe how you are feeling, and get assistance from a mental health professional. With this assistance, they will be able to explore your situation with you and learn more about what you are feeling to hypothesis the root cause.
If you have noticed difficulties with your executive functioning and are also experiencing low mood, there could be a connection. Once you have spoken to a mental health professional, they can provide Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), an evidence-based therapeutic intervention to treat depression. Perhaps there is some other comorbidity or causes of your executive functioning difficulties i.e., anxiety, stress, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), etc.
CBT is based on the concept that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are closely linked, so shifting one of these aspects will assist in altering how we think, feel, and/or behave. This is done with a variety of techniques and over time, CBT may contribute to a decrease in symptoms of ‘low mood’, which may improve your executive function.