Mental Health Awareness Week: Auburn sport psychologist Dr. Julia Cawthra

Story Links AUBURN, Ala. – As a volleyball student-athlete at the University of…

Mental Health Awareness Week: Auburn sport psychologist Dr. Julia Cawthra

AUBURN, Ala. – As a volleyball student-athlete at the University of Denver, Dr. Julia Cawthra resisted initially when her coach required each team member to schedule a session with the program’s sport psychologist.

The meeting, however, opened her mind.

“After having that conversation, I started to realize more and more in my games, in practices and even in weightlifting, how much my thoughts were impacting what I was doing,” she said. “When I finally asked for help, I realized I don’t have to do it all on my own.”

That revelation prompted Cawthra to consider changing her career plan.

“I thought, what would it be like if I can help other people understand that they don’t have to do it on their own, that their experience is not isolated to them,” she said. “I wanted to do whatever I could so that other athletes didn’t feel helpless and alone in whatever they’re going through.”

Having intended to become a medical doctor, Cawthra majored in molecular biology, but when she hesitated to take the MCAT and apply to medical schools, a mentor wondered why.

“He asked me, ‘What would you do every day for free?'” Cawthra recalled. “‘What’s going to get you out of bed when you’re 45 and you’ve been working in the field for decades?'”

A gap year and a master’s in sport and performance psychology confirmed her future career.

“This is exactly what I want to be doing,” said Cawthra, who went to earn her doctorate in counseling psychology from Indiana University before working as a doctoral intern at Utah State.

Cawthra started working at Auburn this fall after first visiting the Plains on her interview before the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was here for my interview only 24 hours,” she said. “But it just feels different. It feels like a family, warm and inviting.”

Her newness to Auburn helps Cawthra connect with freshmen and transfer student-athletes.

“I’m new here, too. How has it been for you?” she asks them. “Anytime we’re vulnerable with someone else, we’re trusting them with that information, and that increases the chances that they might trust us with their vulnerable information.

“One of the basic human needs is connection. There is still that urge to have more in-person connection. I think [the pandemic] is exacerbating things that might have been dormant. Maybe for a lot of us our anxiety or depression was pushed aside but now that things have gotten shaken up, it’s brought to the surface.”

During Mental Health Awareness Week, which takes place Oct.4-10, Cawthra and Auburn Athletics director of counseling and sport psychology Dr. Adrian Ferrera are highlighting to student-athletes and others the importance of resting and recharging.

“Recharging doesn’t happen without rest,” she said. “Athletes sometimes prefer the term ‘recharge’ because it feels more active.”

Even hard-charging athletes intent on outworking opponents need to rest, Cawthra says, comparing the human body and mind to smart phones that need to be recharged.

“Our capacity to produce is actually lower when we are so busy. At some point, there’s limited return,” she said. “Attention and energy are limited resources, so resting, recharging and recovering can be incredibly beneficial.”

Recharging strategies are unique to each person, Cawthra says, mentioning distraction-free meals, nature walks, reading, and taking a bath as options.

“You can also just do nothing,” she says, “because that’s doing something too.”

Oct 1, 2020; Auburn, AL, USA; Julia Cawthra during a feature portrait session at YYYYY. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood/AU Athletics
Dr. Julia Cawthra, Auburn Athletics sport psychologist

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer