Interview with anxiety expert, hypnotherapist and solution focused therapist Elaine Way

Find out what inspired professional opera singer Elaine Way to retrain as an anxiety expert, and become the owner of the Solution Focused Studio, a clinical therapy practice based in Surrey. 

What’s your career background?

My journey towards becoming a therapist and public speaker was certainly not straightforward.

My interest in mental health and wellbeing actually started when I was working as a professional opera singer. I was suffering from disabling stage fright and in order to beat it, I started studying more about anxiety, the brain and perception.

I found it curious that I, a perfectly calm, outgoing and confident person in most other situations, would suddenly be filled with self-doubt and fear when standing on stage or before an audition panel. I felt physically sick and scared.

I’d also noticed similar symptoms when flying on aeroplanes and realised that I really couldn’t take another year of holidaying in Cornwall (no offence Cornwall – you’re beautiful!) to avoid going anywhere near an airport. I had to beat my anxiety.

This began my study into psychology, the workings of the brain and the many types of therapy on offer – including Clinical Hypnotherapy and Solution Focused Brief Therapy. I was blown away by my own results. I had managed, with the help of these tools, to overcome both of my issues within only a few months.

As I approached my forties, I decided to take the leap and begin practicing as a Clinical Therapist. Initially I thought I would be predominantly working with other singers and actors. However, I hadn’t quite appreciated just how many people experienced anxiety. Now I work with people of all ages and backgrounds and I love that each client who comes to see me will be different in some way. 

One thing I have learned, thanks to my career pathway, is that I much prefer working for myself and having reasonable autonomy over my working hours. While I used to regret not having gone straight into this career I think there is wisdom in accepting that the right career will happen at the right time. There is no way my twenty-five year old self would have been a useful therapist! Experience has taught me how to relate to people – yes, even that stint as a waitress when I was at Uni.

How did your career change after having children?

Having two children in quick succession made me revaluate my career and how I wanted to work. Singing had become less practical as the offers of work I received were for tours around Europe, which would have involved me being away for long stretches of time.

I had also used the time while I was pregnant with my first child to study psychology and decided to throw myself more into my work as a clinical therapist, with the aim of having the ability to work from home and have more say over my hours.

As much as I loved being a stay-at- home mum in the early years, I found the nature of the role quite tough and isolating. I needed a mental challenge and realised that am someone who likes to be mentally busy and I feel more fulfilled having children and a career.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I’m very happy to hold up my hand and say that I am one of the 1 in every 4 people in the UK who have suffered from anxiety at some point. We need to be more open about mental wellbeing rather than hiding away and suffering in silence.

I felt that therapy provision could be better in the UK and my business is my own way of trying to help this situation. I want people to understand their brains better and make therapy a positive experience.

I went back to basics and thought about what I needed when I was experiencing anxiety, as I had mixed experiences when seeking help for my own issues. As a society we need more access to brief, positive, affordable therapy and a much wider range than currently offered by the NHS. 

So many clients came to me after spending months in traditional therapy for anxiety, yet had never had the fundamental facts of the brain’s anxiety response system explained to them. That is a real failure because it doesn’t empower people to understand why they feel as they do. So that is where I started and I wanted to make sure the science of the brain is being communicated to people as well as using the therapy tools I feel work best.

Hypnotherapy, one of the tools I use, is still an unregulated profession, so it became very important to ensure that my practice represented the highest professional standards of practice.

When I studied Solution Focused Brief Therapy I realised what a useful, accessible, evidence-based tool this was and became determined to share it with as many people as possible. I want therapy to be a positive, comfortable, pleasant and empowering experience otherwise people won’t seek help or assistance.

What’s your USP? 

In the private therapy sector, I believe you are your own USP. Clients have to have a comfortable rapport with you and trust you to help them reach their goals. Because my type of therapy relies somewhat on the conversational skill of the therapist, my USP is that every session is positive, focused and very responsive to the client. 

I also communicate a lot of science to my clients because we need facts to help us understand the brain and our behaviour.

Brief therapy aims to get results more efficiently than traditional talking therapies such as counselling, and that is very appealing to clients. Our sessions always have a focus – what we call ‘best hopes’. People don’t want (and often can’t afford) to be seeing a therapist for years and I help people find their solutions as quickly as possible. That sets the Solution Focused Studio apart from other therapy practices. 

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

I’m happy to say that I have a relatively small marketing budget because most of my business now comes through word of mouth recommendations. If you are professional and give your best to people, they do your marketing for you.

I really love being invited to give workshops and talks  (perhaps it is the stage performer in me!) and often as a result of those events I receive further enquiries.

I can be of use to people attending the events but also get useful PR in return. For example, I often go into schools and talk to teenagers about anxiety and resilience, or talk to parents about the teenage brain. They may not become clients, but you can guarantee when someone they know does need help they will recommend your name.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

By far it is the perception that hypnotherapy is a bit ‘woo’. It isn’t. Of course, some practitioners may be, however, there is lots of evidence for it and why we should use it more widely.

I receive direct referrals from GPs all of the time for issues such as anxiety and sleep, although quite often they would never openly admit to it, due to the NHS responding so slowly to integrate a wider range of evidence-based therapies. It works tremendously in combination with other tools and as long as the therapist has good training, is perfectly safe.

After all, hypnotherapy is simply using language to create change – you can’t really make people do something they don’t genuinely want to do.

And your proudest moment so far?

Gosh, I‘m so proud of every single one of my clients. My proudest moment is probably hearing how a client experiencing OCD was able to give their mum a hug after five sessions of treatment. It might seem like such a simple thing but it was something they had always feared due to contamination and I admit it brought a tear to my eye.

Quite often it is clients achieving the smaller things in life that they have always wanted to do, such as drive on a motorway, give a presentation or stop a panic attack. It takes determination to overcome these things and I’m so proud of all the changes they create.

Why is work so important to you?

Unfortunately we aren’t given an instruction manual about our brain at birth. Anxiety is a thief. It steals time and energy from you and can limit how much you achieve or enjoy in your life. I help people get their control back.

If there is a bigger buzz than watching a client overcome an issue, I haven’t come across it yet! The fact is that in most cases, we don’t need to live with anxiety controlling us. I’m also passionate about using natural ways to conquer these issues, rather than relying on medication.

How do you balance your work with your family?

It took a while to figure out the balance as when I first opened the Studio, I found it hard to say ‘no’ to a potential client. My diary quickly became too busy and I felt my own stress levels rising. I have since learned that I need to stick to the hours I set and give myself time to be a parent too. I worked through a whole summer holiday once before realising that while I loved my job, working flat out during school holidays was not the plan.

My children were at the younger end of school age when I began my business, so that did help as it can be a fine balance of sports camps and activities to allow me time to work. I also have to be strict with myself regarding evening and weekend appointments. When it is your own business it is very easy to still be working on your laptop at 10pm in the evening if you don’t set yourself proper work hours.

I have a very supportive and forward-thinking husband, but I still found I had to communicate in words of one syllable that no, Mummy will not be making the supper tonight as Mummy also works and meals and school pick-ups are a joint responsibility. ‘I can’t cook as well as you….’ is no longer an acceptable excuse.

We absolutely have to work as a team and that involves everything from shared cooking, weekend cover and child-care. At times it is tough, but I’m pleased to be setting the example to my children that I am a working woman, a Mum and that I have built my own successful company. 

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) Do it because you love it

Make sure you choose this career because you absolutely love it, not because you think it will make a good business or provide a good income with flexible hours. You have to be 100% engaged with clients and have a genuine wish to help them reach their goals. If you genuinely feel like this about helping people, it won’t feel like a job.

2) Don’t forget to look after yourself

Self-care is a priority for therapists because we are so engaged when we are with clients. We are working with people who often have significant or traumatic issues. Times that by up to seven clients a day and you can risk feeling drained and isolated, even if you thrive on the work. Good nutrition, good sleep, good support help to keep your own positive attitude.

3) Be altruistic

Give some of your time away for free, either providing freebie workshops at a hospice or speaking at an event. If you genuinely care about mental health and wellbeing, try to help people who may not be able to afford the fees to access what you do in some kind of way.

In the early days it is really good practice and getting out to these events can also expose you to new clients – businesses and individuals – so it can be a win-win situation. Doing good deeds is a great way to get your own positive brain chemicals!

And finally, what is next for you?

I’m just about to launch a new menopause programme called Positive ChangeTM, which offers more focused therapy process to women approaching or experiencing menopause.

I don’t think enough women are aware that clinical hypnotherapy has been shown in studies to be one of the most effective methods of treatment to help with the physical and mental symptoms we can experience during the menopause phase – particularly with regards to hot flashes.

I’m also currently developing a couple of online courses to add to my website, to open my therapy out to people who may not be able to reach my practice or afford 1-2-1 therapy sessions. 

Early next year I’m hoping to consolidate my studies with an MA in Neuroscience as I have the belief that we should never stop learning. I just need to figure out how to add it in to an already busy schedule!

You can find out more about Elaine and the Solution Focused Studio on their website.