Mind-Body Connection

Giulia Pairone embodies what it means to be a mental health advocate in sports. Pairone began her tennis career at three years old, and has worked her way up to the international level. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Michigan, a Master of Science in Sport Psychology from Florida State University, and is a current Masters Candidate in Work, Organizational, and Personnel Psychology at the University of Barcelona. On top of this, Pairone is a certified yoga teacher and has worked in several mental health and athletics-related positions. Pairone sat down with Sack the Stigma to share her inspiring fight. 

Trigger Warning: This article contains a discussion of psychological and sexual abuse that some readers may find upsetting or distressing. Please practice self-care if you choose to continue reading. 

Brooke Woodrum, Sack the Stigma: I wanted to start this off by asking you to share a little bit about your story and yourself.

Giulia Pairone: I started playing tennis when I was three years old, my mom was my first coach. I tried other sports, but tennis was always my first one. I became really good and moved up regionally, then nationally, and then I reached the international level. I had a coach, back in Italy, who abused me psychologically and sexually. When it was happening, I didn’t tell anyone. After that, I started struggling with a lot of physical and mental health issues, but I didn’t originally realize the connection between the abuse and my mental struggles. 

After the abuse happened, I actually didn’t remember it, I had a sort of dissociative amnesia, which I later found out was part of having PTSD. I forgot about the abuse for about three years, and then when I went to the US for college in 2017, that’s when I remembered the abuse, all while also dealing with eating disorders, panic attacks, and a lot of anxiety. I didn’t know where all of these things were coming from, but when I remembered the abuse, it all started to make sense. I was then diagnosed with PTSD. The label of the diagnosis was very important to me as it all started to make sense that I had all these issues because of a traumatic event. In 2019, two years later, while I was at the University of Michigan, I decided to file a police report in Italy, where there's currently a trial going on.

Now, I have recently become a yoga teacher, which has helped me a lot with my trauma through connecting with my body. There’s a lot of evidence that yoga is good for people who have experienced traumatic events because there can be a lot of disconnection in your body, which yoga can help with. I wanted to start teaching because I hoped I could share yoga with other people. I also have a Masters in Sport Psychology and I am currently pursuing a Masters in Organizational and Personnel Psychology in Barcelona, because I realized I would like to work in an organizational setting to be able to change organizational policies. 

STS: What was the experience like forgetting your trauma and then having it all come back to you one day? What impact did this have on you?

Pairone: After the traumatic event ended, I just forgot and was not able to access those memories, but the effects of the trauma were still there. I was still hypervigilant, having nightmares and panic attacks, and experiencing eating disorders, but I wasn’t sure why. One day, I remembered. I was at a tennis tournament, and I decided to open my journal, and I wanted to write about something else because I was upset that day, and I ended up writing about what happened. It’s really hard to say in words what that felt like. In the weeks leading up to the remembering, I was really on edge and I felt something was off. In the first therapy session after I remembered, I couldn’t even talk, I just said I was going to read what I wrote in my journal. At that moment, I couldn’t even say what happened. It’s hard to understand how I couldn’t remember, but it’s actually very common for people who have experienced a traumatic event. Your brain removes something that has been traumatic and your psyche makes it available to you when you’re ready to tackle it. 

STS: Following the remembering of the abuse you endured, how did you sit through this pain and start to become yourself and present again?

Pairone: It’s been a long journey, and a lot of days I was just trying to survive. Sometimes, I just had to try my best to get through the day, and dealing with the trial and the legal part of it didn’t make it any easier. On top of the symptoms I was feeling, I was a student athlete, so that added to my stress. I would go from a therapy session where I would be trying to understand what happened to me, and then I’d have to go straight to practice. When I remembered the trauma I was at a tournament, and after, I had to go and play. Sometimes there’s not even space to process what happened, so it makes it even harder. It was also hard because I was blaming myself a lot for what happened and for not protecting myself. It’s one thing for people to tell you it’s not your fault, it’s another thing to actually know it in your heart. 

Therapy was really important in helping me, I would go every week. A big part of the trauma is that you can’t trust other people, especially in relationships if you experienced violence. For me, getting back to trusting people and making relationships was really difficult. When I was able to open up to people and trust others and myself, that was huge. Another big part of it was writing. I journal a lot, which has helped me incredibly to process. There were a lot of difficult days and sometimes there’s no one there to pat you on the back. There are a lot of things that become very difficult, even small, daily tasks, become an incredible effort you have to make, but there’s sometimes no one there to celebrate your wins. Writing has helped me acknowledge that I’m here and I’m fighting, and I’m trying to get through it. For me, writing has been life changing. 

Yoga has also been important, I’ve done a lot of yoga to help me get in touch with my body and my feelings. I remember the first time I got out of a yoga class, I realized, wait, I have a body. I know it sounds weird to say, but I couldn’t feel my body or sensations. Your body holds a lot of emotions and the one thing you don’t want to do as a survivor is feel your body. You try to shut down everything because all you feel is pain. Yoga really helped me to be able to feel things and feel pleasure. I think it’s important for people who have experienced trauma to have some sort of body-based work on top of therapy. It’s great to not have to talk about what you experienced, but still be processing it through working on your body. Yoga is like coming home to yourself. It has a lot to do with trusting your body and yourself. A lot of the issues with PTSD make you hypervigilant, but when you are present in doing yoga, it calms down your nervous system so you are not always feeling scared that something is going to happen to you. The first thing I learned in yoga was how to listen to myself and how to love myself exactly as I am. When I’m on my mat, I don’t have to compete or compare myself to anybody. Being able to listen to yourself is so special, and that has helped me to be very compassionate and loving with myself. Yoga provides a radical acceptance of where you are and who you are, so it’s really been a life changing practice for me and has helped me in so many ways. 

STS: What inspired you to receive your yoga teacher certification?

Pairone: I practiced for five or six years before I decided that I would love to do teacher training. Yoga has helped me so much that I wanted to share the gift of the practice with others. It’s such a beautiful practice, but it’s not just the physical aspect of it that I fell in love with, it involved the mental and spiritual aspects, as well. I love the clarity it brings, and I wanted to share that. 

STS: How did your experience as a collegiate tennis player inspire you to pursue a career in Sport Psychology?

Pairone: I was always fascinated with philosophy in high school, and when I got to college that branch into psychology. I was always passionate and curious about learning how we think, feel, and behave. In being an athlete, this passion naturally fell into the realm of sport psychology, which I pursued for my Masters. After my Masters, I realized a lot of the focus was on the individual aspect in what goes on in someone’s mind, but what was not talked about enough was the organizational side of things. I became really interested in how organizational policies can affect our behavior, which is why I now study Organizational Psychology. 

STS: I know you mentioned you are currently working with the ChangetheGame organization in Italy, which combines some features of Sport and Organizational Psychology. What influenced your decision to move to Italy? How have your personal experiences influenced you to do this work?

Pairone: Earlier this year when the trial started and my story came out in the news, ChangetheGame reached out to me and I got in touch with the founder. I really fell in love with their mission. They’re a national, soon to be international, organization that helps out athletes who have been abused, legally and psychologically. We do a lot of educational work, so for example, we recently published a study on athletes in Italy since there was limited data on abuse and athletes, and it was found that 4 out of 10 athletes are survivors of violence. There are a lot of athletes, almost half of them, that are survivors of some sort of violence. It’s a very prevalent issue. We often think sports are safe spaces with strong values, but they’re not. That’s why I want to talk about my story openly because it happens and we have to talk about it. I hope my story will help other people, but it’s hard to be an athlete and a survivor. I love that with ChangetheGame I can talk about my story and make sports a safer place. We do a lot of talks at universities to try and change policies, because there are a lot of safeguarding issues in sports, and these organizational policies need to change. 

STS: How do you hope your story inspires others to share theirs?

Pairone: You see this a lot with the #MeToo Movement and meeting with other survivors, it’s just important to know that you’re not alone and this happens to other people. Knowing that you’re not the only one that has suffered violence, you’re not the only one who wakes up in the middle of the night with nightmares, and you’re not the only one who struggles with forming intimate relationships, makes it better. With being a survivor, there are a lot of dark days where you’re just trying to survive. I’ve survived for a long time, but sometimes the pain becomes too much, and it gives you a lot of strength to know you’re not the only one. I also want to acknowledge that this is a problem in sports and I want my story to provide change. It is a great thing to play sports, it’s been a big part of my life and I still continue to do it, but with sports, there is a lot of hurt and a lot of violence. There are a lot of things that need to be changed in sports. I hope one day nobody has to go through what I’ve gone through and what so many others have gone through.

STS: Why do you think it’s important to Sack the Stigma?

Pairone: A lot of people go through mental health issues and it’s important to be aware that other people may be struggling without you knowing, so we need to be kind to each other. Struggling with mental health is very hard, but struggling on top of being an athlete makes it even harder. It’s important to have conversations about mental health and to create safe spaces where athletes can talk about their struggles. It’s important to give athletes space to talk, but it’s also important for coaches to be aware of mental struggles as well. When I was at Florida State University, I had a terrible nightmare one night where I woke up crying, basically paralyzed in bed. I had practice in an hour or so and I was really struggling and thinking I probably couldn't go. I texted my coach, and I’ve always been really open with her about my story, so I told her I had a nightmare and wasn't sure I could make it to practice. She encouraged me to come to practice but not so I could play, just for us to talk. It ended up being a really great conversation that I was super grateful for. Coaches have to acknowledge that they need to make a space where athletes feel comfortable to talk about their struggles if they feel comfortable. It’s very important that it’s not just the athletes who talk about mental health, but we need coaches and organizations that make these conversations possible. As athletes, we can talk about mental health all day long, but if you’re on a team or in an organization where struggling isn’t accepted and you can’t take a mental health day off if you need it, that’s really hard.  

STS: How do you Sack the Stigma?

Pairone: I have to Sack the Stigma every day. I am still struggling. For myself, I write, I do yoga, I talk with my friends, and overall I just try to be open. If someone were to ask me how I am, I wouldn’t just say “I’m good” when I’m not. If someone asks, I’ll tell them if I’m struggling that day. What has also helped me is to learn how to reconnect to the beauty of being alive and appreciate the ordinary moments, because yes I’ve suffered a lot and a lot of things have been difficult, yet life offers so many gifts, and there is hope and there are many beautiful moments to be lived. Life is still worth living and there are many beautiful things to being alive, like seeing sunsets, laughing with your friends, hugging a loved one, drinking coffee in the morning, dancing to your favorite songs. To be alive in the present moment and realize that these “small and ordinary” moments are actually what make life worth living.  This is what I’ve learned in my journey and what has kept me going through the difficult moments.

For Giulia Pairone, and for many other athletes, and people, who are victims of assault and abuse, every day is a battle. It is important that we shed light on the prevalence of abuse in athletics and the mental health consequences that can stem from it. Raising awareness and sacking the stigma is a team effort: We must not only create a safe environment for athletes to share their stories, but also move towards organizational change. In Pairone’s words: “It’s very important that it’s not just the athletes who talk about mental health, but we need coaches and organizations that make these conversations possible. As athletes, we can talk about mental health all day long, but if you’re on a team or in an organization where struggling isn’t accepted and you can’t take a mental health day off if you need it, that’s really hard.”

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