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Therapy Helped Me Overcome Depression and Better Cope With Chronic Health Conditions

“I clearly remember feeling like I was stuck deep down at the bottom of a dark hole where I could barely breathe. It was especially disturbing because I didn’t care if I stayed down there and never saw light again. Looking back, I realize that my severe depressive episode had been building for years, but I didn’t really notice it.”

Hello! Who are you?

Hello! I’m Sahar Elhodiri Aker, and I currently live in Maui but spent most of my life in the Midwest. 

I’m self-employed and wouldn’t trade it for anything, even though it’s super challenging. I own an e-commerce business related to mental health and am also a sales rep for an online clean beauty brand.

I’ve been married to my very best friend in the world since 2005 and am so grateful to have met him when we worked at the same company many years ago. We have two cats that constantly keep us on our toes: Bonnie and Clyde. They most definitely live up to their namesakes – they are always up to something!

Am I happy? I actually explored this question greatly during therapy several years ago, and it forced me to look at happiness in a completely different light.

I now believe that the only way you can find happiness is to stop chasing it. You will never have happiness if you believe it’s somewhere else, i.e., if you think you will only have it once you accomplish a certain thing in your life, like move into a new house, get a better job, lose a certain amount of weight, etc.

I’ve had to learn to shift my mindset on happiness and know that we have to be grateful for all that we have now and be present to truly be happy. At least, that’s been my experience. And based on that, I would say, yes, I am happy.

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

I have struggled with severe depression and anxiety pretty much my entire life. I honestly didn’t know that I had either until I was an adult – I thought it was just part of who I was, that it was normal for me to be sad and anxious frequently. I had many depressive episodes where I cried every day and isolated myself a lot before I was officially diagnosed. 

A big factor in my mental health problems has always been my chronic health issues, the main one being endometriosis. I’ve had it since I was a teenager, and it got progressively worse over the years. Besides having five surgeries to ease the debilitating symptoms, I also had several other treatments for it that were extremely harsh and traumatic. 

My pain was so severe that I was bedridden for many days and unable to work. I was so angry at my body for continuously failing me, which made my depression and anxiety even worse. It was like a vicious cycle.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

During one of the times that I struggled with my depression the most, I clearly remember feeling like I was stuck deep down at the bottom of a dark hole where I could barely breathe. It was especially disturbing because I didn’t care if I stayed down there and never saw light again. 

Looking back, I realize that my severe depressive episode had been building for years, but I didn’t really notice it. I just shrugged it off until it was no longer sustainable. My physical health suffered and I started having suicidal ideations.

I feel like I hid it pretty well for a long time until I could no longer pretend that everything was fine. I started talking about it with some close friends which helped, but ultimately, it was therapy that saved my life.

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

The turning point for me was when my health fell apart. After my fifth surgery for endometriosis, I was diagnosed with a horrible skin disease, lichen planus, all over my body.

It itched and scabbed like crazy for 18 months. I felt hideous and self-conscious. I wore long sleeves whenever I could (even in the spring and summer) and couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror.

From then on, I was constantly sick – sinus infections, migraines, an extreme case of vertigo (vestibular neuritis) that lasted three months, uncontrollable nosebleeds, and more. I cried every single day.

My physical ailments were really bad for about four years before I realized how much my mental health was playing a role in all of it. I knew I needed to go to therapy, but I was extremely fatigued and emotionally drained, which made it hard to have the energy to look for a therapist. 

I finally found the strength somehow, though, and started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). After two years of CBT, I was finally feeling better, but not completely well – I would say maybe 70 percent better.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

What ended up really helping me feel better came from an idea my therapist had. It was winter in Ohio, the hardest time of the year for me, and he was concerned I’d slip back into a worsened state of depression. 

He suggested I look for something that was beautiful to me every day to help me get through the next few months of winter. The idea is based on Positive Psychology research that has found people who notice and appreciate beauty are more likely to find joy and meaning in everyday life.

I didn’t actually believe it would make much difference, but decided to give it a try. Anything to ease the brunt of a brutal Ohio winter.

I’m a very visual person, so I took it a step further. I started documenting the beauty I saw each day with pictures and posted them on Instagram using the hashtag #ichoosebeauty to keep all the photos in one place and to keep myself accountable. That was in 2013, and I haven’t stopped this practice since. 

Looking for beauty every day has been my life preserver. It has been a vital tool in my journey to better mental health. It has trained my brain to look for the good things in life, no matter how small.

It can be anything, from the shape of a cloud to really savoring a hot cup of tea (instead of mindlessly drinking it) to finding a colorful leaf. Things that I never paid attention to in the past as I was going about my busy life, I now couldn’t wait to try to find. 

The beauty of this practice (pun intended) is not only in the daily bits of beauty you notice, but it’s also a powerful exercise when you look back at all the photos you have collected over time – they are proof of all the beauty in your world and are an empowering reminder on those days when you feel down.

I think it’s vital to have a collection of mental health tools on hand for the days you’re really struggling – whether it’s a meditation app, a coloring book, an empowering coping statement, or whatever helps you.

Perhaps you can also include the practice of looking for life’s beauty in your mental health toolbox. Taking just a minute or two a day to intentionally shift your focus and notice the little things that are all around you can help you feel better – it’s backed by science.

And the more beauty you look for in life, the more of it you’ll start to see without even thinking about it. And who couldn’t use more positivity in their life?

Sahar Aker 1

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

I am an open book with my mental health struggles, as well as with sharing tools that have helped me. I believe the more openly we talk about mental health, the more likely someone who needs help will ask for it, and I want to do my part. I would have loved to have found people talking about their struggles and healing journeys when I was at my worst. 

Honestly, I don’t have a problem talking about my struggles with many people. I truly believe I went through the dark times and came out the other side so that I could share what I went through and what helped me to help others heal.

I share a lot about my mental health journey on Instagram where my #ichoosebeauty project started. The funny thing is, as I was posting my pictures of beauty to help myself heal, it ended up inspiring so many others. I was not expecting my project to have that effect, and when I learned about its impact, I wanted to help as many people as I could.

So I started a free 30-day challenge to guide people on how to find the different types of beauty in their lives. The challenge is now recognized by Mental Health America as a DIY tool to improve mental health.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Healing from mental health conditions is not linear, so go into this journey knowing you will have many ups and downs, but that it’s worth it. Expect those down days. It doesn’t mean you aren’t getting better. It’s just part of the process.

I like to look at bettering your mental health as something similar to physical exercise. You wouldn’t stop working out, become sedentary, and expect to magically stay in shape, would you? Same goes for your mind. Both your body and your brain need consistent training to be healthy.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl – When one of my therapists first told me that there is meaning in suffering, I didn’t really get it for a long time. How can there possibly be a point to such pain? Then he suggested I read the book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. He was a Holocaust survivor. It’s incredible and made me see the meaning of my suffering – Without it, I would have never started to look for all the beauty in life.
  • The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD – This is my go-to workbook when I need to work on reframing my negative thoughts. The exercises in this book help me when I’m really struggling with my mental health.
  • Big Panda and Tiny Dragon by James Norbury – This book is uplifting and features the heartwarming adventures of Big Panda and Tiny Dragon. It’s illustrated beautifully and shares so many life lessons, as this duo struggles through the common challenges of life and overcomes them.
  • You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay – I’ve turned to this book several times throughout my mental health journey. It really helps center me and reminds me how much limiting beliefs hold us back, as well as shares exercises on how to move forward.
  • Insight Timer App – I use the free version of this meditation app to help me when I can’t sleep. It has also helped me with guided meditations for anxiety and self-confidence.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

You can learn more about my journey on my website as well as connect with me on Instagram at

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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