JENNIFER STERLING

By CRISHA ARIVALAGAN Illustration SENDRA UEBELE

©Sendra Uebele

©Sendra Uebele

What has made you interested in our connection with our mind, body and soul and the way we eat? 
I started my career in wellness as a health coach and was attracted to the field after working through a few health issues that were related to the way I was eating. I realized, however, after working with several clients as a health coach that a lot of the issues with food and eating that came up in discussions with my clients didn’t have anything to do with food, but had a significant impact on their relationship with food. 
Topics like relationships (or lack of), career choices, childhood, and family life came up often, especially when addressing concerns around emotional eating. I figured out pretty quickly that food and eating is so much more than just food and eating. There’s a very real socioemotional component - that’s what piqued my interest in the connection between mind and body, and a more whole-person approach to nutrition. 

Has it taken yourself a while to find balance in your own nutrition and mental health? 
I struggled with my health for about 7 years before figuring out that some of my health concerns could be managed with some dietary shifts. I learned in that time period that I had celiac, an autoimmune disease where eating gluten (the protein found in wheat) can cause damage to the small intestine. I also discovered that I had some food allergies and sensitivities. Having this knowledge is what helped me to really figure out how to eat in a way that works best for my body. 
As for mental health, I was diagnosed with depression when I was an undergraduate in college. I struggled with it because there was so much stigma around being mentally ill as a black woman. We’re supposed to be strong and having a mental health issue felt like a weakness at the time. I was able to find balance in mental health by working with my therapist to shift thought patterns, behaviors, and consciously incorporate activities into my life that bring me joy. 
I added the food piece into the equation and did some experimenting to see if I could find a way to manage my depression using food, supplements, and lifestyle interventions. I did take medication for a time, but have been able to manage without it for several years now. That’s not the case with everyone, of course, so I always recommend that my clients and patients make the best decision for them. 

How did/does it feel to feel really in tune with your body? 
I think it’s different for everyone, but for me it feels like having a conversation with a really close friend. A relationship where there are lots of inside jokes that only the two of you understand and even though you know each other really well, there are always little quirks to investigate and get to know. 
Most times, I understand what my body is trying to tell me, even though it doesn’t speak in words. I can understand the sensations and temperature changes...we have our own inside jokes! 

Could you tell me more about being a dance/movement psychotherapist, what inspires you about movement?
Dance/Movement Psychotherapy uses movement to assist in emotional processing. It’s like talk therapy, but with the added component of movement and the body. Our bodies are always in communication with us - changes in heart rate, changes in breathing patterns, sensations, temperature changes, tension, etc. For many people these things happen without them being consciously aware of them. Dance/movement psychotherapy brings your awareness to those things, so you understand yourself as a whole person. It moves beyond “what do I think about this?” to “How do I feel about this?” “Or how is my body responding to this?” 
In western society we like to separate the two, but they are actually very intimately connected. Our thoughts affect our physiology and vice versa, so it’s important to be aware of both. 
I find the non-verbal conversation that can occur in movement to be most inspiring. You don’t have to say a word and your body can communicate an array of emotions through facial expressions, different body postures, breath...it’s quite fascinating. 

On the Black Girl Healing Project, you mentioned the false generalisation that ‘black people don’t get depressed’. Was this a pressure you felt growing up? 
I definitely heard that a lot when I was growing up. Mental illness was a “white person” problem. Black people can survive the worst of scenarios and still bounce back unscathed. This is what I grew up hearing, so when I was diagnosed with depression, it took some getting used to. I felt like a failure and like I wasn’t as strong as the rest of the women in my family. 

How do you feel we can inspire more people in colour to find courage to show up for themselves?
I think it’s happening more and more, but as a society, showing up for yourself is frowned upon. It’s viewed as selfish and we’re encouraged, especially as women, to always be looking out for other people. The more we push back against the stereotypes of strength. The more conversations we have that normalize showing up for ourselves and mental health, the more courage people of color will have to show up for themselves and those in their communities. 
It’s often hard to be the first one to step outside the box, but I believe that hearing other people talk about and knowing you’re not alone will have a big impact. 

A queen of many trades, how did you choose a well program like Black Girl Healing Project? 
I created The Black Girl Healing Project because I saw a need, within myself and those in my community. I live with depression. There are women in my family who live with mental illnesses, but there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation being had around mental health and black women. There also weren’t a lot of therapists I came across that looked like me, so I wanted to be a part of the change - have the conversations that weren’t being had and make myself visible within my community so people would know that there are black therapists. 
I also wanted women who look like me to have access to more holistic forms of mental health care, like dance/movement psychotherapy. Since there is also some discomfort around sharing personal business with a stranger, I wanted them to know that there are options beyond more traditional talk therapy. 

What’s your most desired aim with this program?
To make dance/movement therapy a more well-known treatment option and to help decrease some of the stigma around being a black woman who lives with depression. 

What was one of the biggest challenges of Black Girl Healing Project? 
Honestly, the biggest challenge was getting started. I wasn’t sure how it would be received, so it actually took me two years to get to a place where I was ready to put it out into the world. I guess I had to get over my own fears and insecurities...imposter syndrome, in order to create it and make it visible. 

What’s your next project, or next goal with Black Girl Healing Project? 
I’m releasing a book in October of 2019, which is really exciting. It speaks to the experience of the stereotypical Strong Black Woman and offers education, support, and encouragement in the form of letters. 

If you could let women know about three nutritional gems that could help our mental health, what would they be?

  1. The food you eat can and does affect your mood by way of the bacteria in your gut. 

  2. Intuitive eating, as opposed to dieting, is much better for your physical and mental health than caloric restriction or depriving yourself of whole food groups for the sake of intentional weight loss.  

  3. Eat a variety of foods and find ways to prepare them so you enjoy them. A varied diet is best for brain health, but also ideal for overall health and well-being.