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8 Tips for How to Thrive as a Nurse With ADHD

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated March 3, 2023
    Living with ADHD can be a struggle for a nurse. Find out helpful work and study strategies as a nurse diagnosed with ADHD shares her experiences.

    Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects both men and women but in different ways. Due to the differences, women are often underdiagnosed or diagnosed late in life, which can be a barrier to treatment, a sense of understanding, and the ability to find community.

    An underdiagnosis of ADHD significantly affects careers where women make up the majority of the workforce, which includes nursing. In 2021, 82.5% of nurses were women.

    While ADHD poses challenges, people with ADHD typically have other skills, including:

    • High levels of empathy
    • Spontaneity
    • High levels of courage
    • Being able to hyper-focus on a task

    On this page, we share the experiences of one nurse with ADHD, how she tackled school, and how she thrives today as a nurse.

    Molly Foss is a registered nurse at a level 1 trauma center. She was diagnosed with ADHD when she was 29.

    Foss didn’t answer the call to be a nurse right out of high school. She felt intimidated by the work, so she pursued something else first.

    “When I realized that wasn’t working, I was very intimidated to go back to school,” she says. “I finally realized that it’s all just a series of small steps.”

    How to Thrive as a Nurse or Nursing Student With ADHD

    Nursing students with ADHD must find strategies to help them study and absorb the material. Many of those same strategies can be used after graduation to stay up to date with research and nursing procedures. Before you can develop strategies, you must have a grasp of your own limitations and needs, which may be different than others with ADHD.

    Self-awareness is the first step to creating tactics that help overcome your specific challenges. Foss has discovered that the medication prescribed to her is her No. 1 asset.

    “Taking my medication is like putting on my glasses in the morning,” she says. “Everything goes from equally foggy and blurry to clear and obvious.”

    While medication can help, lifestyle changes are what contribute to finding your groove with ADHD and maintaining it.

    Foss also has created an assignment sheet. The sheet has tick boxes for most of the information she must track for patient care during her shift.

    “More neurotypical people make their sheet on a blank piece of paper, I assume, because their brain is more organized,” she says. “My brain isn’t so organized, which is why I need my report sheet to be over-organized with a spot for everything.”

    8 Tips for Nursing Students and Nurses With ADHD

    Students and nurses with ADHD may help reduce the frustration and challenges accompanying the diagnosis by using tips and tricks others have discovered. These tips can be used independently or combined. They might also inspire another strategy that helps you in school, at work, or in your daily activities.

    1. Use Flashcards

    Students find consistent, repetitive exposure to information can help retention. Flashcards are a quick way to test yourself while involved in other activities. Movement and altering the environment can help to engage your brain in learning. Consider flashcards while eating, playing games, or when you’re out for a walk.

    2. Change Your Environment

    Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder find studying in the same environment for an extended period of time challenging. Consider moving your study space every hour or two. Don’t limit this space to the library or your home. Instead, include a coffee shop, park, restaurant, or a student lounge on campus.

    Anywhere you can sit and comfortably study is fair game.

    3. Ask for Help

    Contact the school’s office for students with disabilities. You’ll need documentation of your diagnosis but this will give you access to accommodations that can help you succeed in school.

    “One of the students in my class was allowed to take tests in a quiet room so they wouldn’t be distracted by everyone else,” Foss says.

    4. Seek Out Resources

    Students and working nurses need access to resources that help increase their level of success and to better understand ADHD, its origins, and its impacts. ADDitude magazine is one resource Foss recommends. Reading the articles helped her feel seen and not ignored by society. The magazine is full of resources, tips, and stories for adults with ADHD and parents with children who have ADHD.

    Additionally, Dr. Gabor Maté, who has ADHD himself, authored “Scattered,” which helps readers understand their ADHD diagnosis, the origins of ADHD, and how to heal and reduce the impacts of ADHD.

    5. Try the Pomodoro Technique

    This strategy works with the short attention span that many people with ADHD experience. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management tool that sets a 25-minute limit on the amount of time you work on any assignment before taking a scheduled five-minute break. After the fourth break, you schedule a longer 15- to 30-minute break. Of course, you can alter the 25-minute work time to fit your personal needs without extending it past 30 minutes.

    6. Practice Flexibility and Self-Compassion

    No one is a robot. It’s important to recognize when you may be hyper-focused or highly productive. Take this time to work on projects that require more brainpower.

    When you have trouble focussing, have self-compassion and use the time to relax or work on something that doesn’t require as much attention, such as creating flashcards. The trick is to be flexible with your schedule to work with your flow of attention and not against it.

    4. Create Structure

    New nursing students may enjoy the lack of structure and freedom they experience as a first-year college student. But for students with ADHD it can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, create your own structure for studying and develop an accountability system, so you aren’t on your own. Don’t forget to include downtime and recreational activities. They are important for your mental health.

    5. Consider Treatment

    Many with ADHD find that medication helps calm their mind and allows them to focus productively on tasks necessary for school and work. Many of the medications used are stimulants, yet they help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder function calmly and sleep better.

    Additionally, cognitive behavioral therapy and environment modification can ease symptoms and help you cope better.

    6. Prioritize Your Treatment

    You can’t take care of your patients, family, or life if you aren’t taking care of yourself. Set an alarm to take your medication on time, create and stick with coping strategies that help you at school or work, and connect with others who have ADHD.

    When you feel understood and appreciated for who you are, it can help raise your motivation to care for yourself so you can care for others.

    7. Clear Your Mind

    Frequently stopping what you’re doing to address an idea or thought that popped into your mind can mess up your day and impact patient care. Instead, carry a small notepad or your cell phone where you can write down the idea and address it later when you don’t have so much on your plate.

    8. Take Things One Step at a Time

    Just out of high school, Foss felt a calling to be a nurse. Terrified of the schooling and being able to work as a nurse, she chose to do something else. She soon realized the career wasn’t working but figured out that changing was really only a series of small steps.

    “Right out of high school, I told people I wasn’t going to a university because I ‘didn’t have a four-year attention span.’ Now I have two two-year degrees and my BSN. Take the first step, even if it’s scary,” she says.

    How ADHD Impacts Nurses and Nursing Students

    The symptoms and manifestations of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in adults can differ from those in children. Adults not diagnosed in childhood may not seek support at work or school. Yet, up to 5% of adults have ADHD, affecting their relationships and ability to function at work and home. This number is likely underreported.

    How ADHD Shows Up

    Without tools to cope with the impacts of ADHD, it can get overwhelming, and it may feel like the symptoms are getting harder to manage. The symptoms of ADHD can vary in each individual, but they aren’t all obstacles to life. Some symptoms of ADHD can enhance the lives of those diagnosed.

    These symptoms are triggered by altered brain chemistry and neural activity:

    • Lack of general focus
    • Hyperfocused on details
    • Poor impulse control or spontaneity
    • Poor time management
    • Inattention
    • Increased empathy and exaggerated emotions
    • Hyperactivity
    • Executive dysfunction

    There is no single test to determine if a person has ADHD. Additionally, there are three subtypes of ADHD. They are primarily hyperactive, primarily inattentive, or primarily combined types.

    There are nine symptoms of ADHD that are primarily inattentive or primarily hyperactive. Adults must exhibit at least five of the symptoms in multiple settings to be diagnosed with ADHD.

    How to Treat ADHD

    The best treatments for ADHD are combinations of several approaches that work together. The ideal combination may be different for each individual.

    They can include some or all of the following:

    • Medication
    • Behavioral therapy
    • Exercise
    • Nutrition
    • Supplements
    • Stress reduction

    Adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can develop strategies that help focus attention to successfully complete their activities at home and at work.

    This is how Foss successfully completed nursing school and has thrived in her position in a fast-paced healthcare environment.

    Seeking a Diagnosis

    Foss was prompted to see her doctor after a classmate with many of the same challenges she had was diagnosed with ADHD. Finally having a diagnosis took a weight off her shoulders.

    Foss has found that her symptoms can vary from day to day.

    “Sometimes I can multitask like a pro; other times I constantly forget to bring a patient the warm blanket I promised them,” she says.

    Self-acceptance and reparenting are two big ways to cope with the neurodivergence of ADHD while having compassion for its impacts. Foss recognizes that her brain is not as organized as her coworkers, and she has found approaches that help her work around the impacts of ADHD and successfully function as a nurse.

    With medication, education, and established strategies, Foss stays organized by writing down everything. These strategies help her complete her tasks and pass important details to the next shift.

    Foss has also identified certain benefits to her ADHD that help her at work. For example, she believes that she is more comfortable deviating from a set list of activities than some of her coworkers.

    “I’m the one other nurses come to with the unusual questions about finding a workaround when we’re out of supplies,” she says.

    Her management recognizes these qualities in Foss too. The education department specifically schedules Foss to cover other staff when three rounds of education are planned in a shift.

    “I can go with the flow and rotate between three different assignments better than others can,” she says.

    Finding what works for you is the first step in thriving as a nurse with ADHD. Seeking a community of people similarly impacted by ADHD can increase your sense of belonging, your support network, and your ability to meet your unique needs as a nurse or nursing student with ADHD.

    Meet Our Contributor

    Portrait of Molly Foss, RN

    Molly Foss, RN

    Molly Foss is a registered nurse at a level 1 trauma center, but before that she was a mechanical drafter. After five years she realized that she wasn’t cut out to be sitting at a desk all day. At age 27, she went back to school to become a nurse. After two years, she was diagnosed with ADHD during her first year of nursing school. She has been a nurse for 11 years and has been in trauma and specialty care for the last eight.