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How a blue whale taught me how to cope with pain and made me smile

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A personal tale of coping with pain

I am going to venture into new territory with this blog post, by telling a personal tale of coping with pain, while weaving in elements of:

  • the ever-present responsibilities of motherhood
  • a challenging (yet fulfilling) full-time job
  • the joys of music
  • a glorious city
  • a beautiful park
  • and a giant blue whale

Let’s begin.

Please note: you many need to “re-load” the page, to see the many gifs that I have included, for your viewing pleasure!

No rest for the weary?

I love my work. One of my responsibilities includes running stress management and relaxation training groups on an inpatient chemical dependency unit. Typically the men (and women, in a separate group) adhere reasonably well to the “rule” about no food or drink in group.

One of the men became irate, and got in my face… His actions startled me.


I felt the muscle spasms running up my back, and into my neck.

My initial (“gloom & doom”) thought: “Damn. I still need to run this group! This is going to suck! How can I do this?”

Pain level: 7 😖

My subsequent cognitively “re-framed” thought: “C’mon, it’s only an hour. You can do this. Just make yourself as comfortable as possible, and focus on how much fun running this group can be.”

Pain level: 5 🙁

And, guess what?

It was fine.

(As an aside: Many folks have asked me if I ever feel afraid, working on this locked inpatient unit. The short answer is no. Within seconds of this fella “getting in my face,” 5-6 of the other men immediately jumped up, encircled, and escorted the “unhappy customer” out of the group room. So I tend to feel safe and protected).


I scream, you scream, we all scream for…. back pain?

I finished the group, and made my way to my office.


Pain level = 9 😩 (Really hurting by now. Hard to breathe).

Sure, I could have gone home sick. I could have gotten an imaging study. I could have been provided with a “reason” for the (fairly excruciating) pain, such as a herniated a disc. And, I could have received a prescription for a narcotic — most deservedly so.

But I’m aware of the data that shows that imaging studies for more than half the the adult population — individuals that do NOT report pain — will show “bulged” discs; and over 27% of asymptomatic adults will show herniated discs.


Even more striking: MRI scans will show that 60% of adults with no back pain will have degenerative disc disease.


Armed with that knowledge, I felt less inclined to looks for “reasons” for my (now severe) neck and back pain.

And, since the pain levels were well over a “4” I didn’t want to go chasing after the pain, with medications.

Rather than brace myself against the pain, I decided to “lean into” and “breathe into” the pain.

Guess what?

It helped!

Pain level = 6 🙁

Pain, with a side of suffering

I’m well aware that pain medications don’t treat the “suffering” that oftentimes accompanies pain.

The “woe-is-me-this-really-effen-sucks-why-does-this-sh@t-happen-at-the-worst-possible-moment” etc., etc., “catastrophic” thoughts. Thoughts that subsequently ratchet up those pain levels “to the moon, Alice!”

And so, I finished my day at work. I saw some more patients, wrote consult reports, and worked on a presentation for an upcoming conference.

All while trying really, really hard, to keep a sunny disposition. And while really, caring, caring, caring for my body. And my mind. And my spirit.

After all, my patients call me “Dr. Sunshine,” right?


RELATED: 7 easy steps to find the right psychologist for you


I paid close attention to my thoughts. Whenever I noticed a “woe-is-me” thought, I refocused.

I kept telling myself that I could do this. That it was only a few more hours left to work. And I kept focusing on how blessed and privileged I feel, to have this amazing job.

By persistently “re-framing” my thoughts, and diligently guarding against despair, and carefully & gently tending to my body, I was able to get through the rest of the work day.


Time for a quick change into the responsibilities of motherhood

As much as I love my work, I really, really love being a mother. It’s part of my dream-come-true life.


RELATED: Welcome to the “Creating Your Dream Life” blog!


I returned home to prepare dinner. And then, it was my turn drive my son and his friend to a MYO (Metropolitan Youth Orchestra) rehearsal.

By now, the pain was so severe, that I felt as if I were going to vomit.

Initial “negative” thought: “This really, really, REALLY SUCKS. I’ll never get through the night! I hate being on my own.”

Pain level = 9 😩

Subsequent “re-framed” thought.” “I can do this. It’s only a couple of hours. I’ll just take my time and focus on how happy & blessed I feel, that my son is in this amazing music program. And, I really love being a mom. His mom. He is healthy and happy. That’s what matters. Don’t fight against the pain. Lean into it. Breathe into it. You can do this.”

Pain level = 6 🙁

No rest for the weary!

Rehearsal over, it was time to drive home and go to bed.


Not to sleep.

The pain was too severe.

So there was no sleep that night, or for the several nights that followed.


RELATED: What is sleep hygiene, and why is it so important?


Oh, the many, many “negative,” “woe-is-me,” even catastrophic thoughts that flood the mind, in the wee hours of the night and morning! When every attempt to turn over, is met with lightning bolts of pain shooting down the neck and spine!

Yup – quite the pain and pity party!

But, I refused to surrender to despair.

I gently and carefully tended to my body, with gentle (yoga) stretches; by applying a heating pad (for the first night only, I used ice for the following nights); and by reminding myself to breathe into the pain, rather than brace against it. Combined, these strategies helped to provide some much appreciated relief.


Pacing is not just for expectant dads…

The next day (Friday), I went to work, as usual. And I continued to utilize the cognitive-behavioral techniques of recognizing “woe-is-me” thinking patterns; re-framing those negative thoughts into more adaptive points of view; and caring, caring, caring for my body, mind, heart, and soul, by pacing,

pain management pacing

Pacing is an excellent strategy to avoid “burst and bust” activity levels.
Denise Dixon, PhD

Some types of pain (and fatigue) can result from ‘boom and bust’ patterns of activity. The person jumps into bursts of activity whenever they are feeling well — often ‘overdoing’ it — resulting in even higher levels of pain or fatigue.

Pacing is a strategy that focuses on slowly increasing activity — from a low baseline — in a very carefully, controlled manner. As a result, the person is able to engage in much more consistent activity levels. Also, the person feels more in control, and less dependent upon how she or he is feeling, that day.

Pacing is an evidence-based strategy of managing pain, rather than pain managing the person.


On Saturday morning, we drove into Manhattan.

What. A. Drive.

Two and a half hours, for a drive that typically takes just over an hour. Sitting for such a prolonged amount of time, really increased the back and neck spasms. Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to roll up my jacket and place it in the small of my back. It helped tremendously. And, I diligently re-framed those “woe-is-me-I-really-hate-this-why-is-this-happening?” type of thoughts. And to breathe!

I refused to despair!

We arrived, just in time to check into the gorgeous hotel. MYO had reserved block of rooms at the Park Central Hotel, across from Carnegie Hall. Checking in was smooth and seamless. I enjoyed a complimentary cocktail, while my son enjoyed an iced-tea and some snacks, in their beautiful lounge. Yay!

Shoot! I realized that I had left the ticket to the performance at home! No worries. We walked across the street to the Carnegie Hall box office. They re-printed my ticket for me. Smooth and easy.

A glorious park. A 13 year old smiles (for real! 😇)


My son had never visited Central Park, so we took a stroll. The smile on his face was worth the effort needed to continue to move. And, moving was so much easier than remaining seated, for any amount of time.

After walking through Central Park, we headed to the amazing Beyond Sushi for a delicious vegan dinner, before returning to the hotel, to turn in, for the night.

Again, no sleep. Waaaaaay too much freakin’ pain.


But I decided that I would NOT be joining the Pity Party, this night! We are in freakin’ NYC, right across from Carnegie Hall, and steps away from Central Park. I mean, c’mon — this is AWESOME! Again, more gentle yoga stretches, more breathing, and MANY more “re-framed” thoughts, provided some relief.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

The next morning was the performance at Carnegie Hall!

What an incredible experience for these young performers.

The only hitch — remaining seated for an entire hour, really aggravated my back. By the time of the intermission, I could hardly see straight.

Initial “woe is me” thought: “I cannot believe this! I really wanted to see the orchestra perform. I’ve been looking forward to this performance, all year.  Why did this happen, now? This really sucks.”

Pain level = 9 😩

Re-framed thought: “Yeah, I was looking forward to this, and it stinks that I need to leave. But I got to see my son sing in Carnegie Freakin’ Hall. How beyond amazing is that? Stop whining. Appreciate the blessing!”

Pain level = 6 🙁

So, I met my son at the pre-arragenged pick-up site. Another adaptive move, by listening to and gently caring for my body.


Teddy’s museum

Our last stop was a promised visit to the American Museum of Natural History.

We hopped on the subway for the easy trip up to 79th street.

Before entering the AMNH, we ducked into Blossom du Jour for another (quick) delicious vegan meal.

Then, on to the museum.

I smile every time I see these incredible buildings. Every. Single. Time.

I allowed my son to direct our course through the museum. The smile on his face helped to quiet the burning muscle spasms that continued to spike, like lightning bolts, along my entire spine, and into my neck.


Enter the blue whale

And then, we entered the blue whale exhibit.

By this point, I could no longer walk without feeling as if the monstrous mountain trolls from “The Hobbit” were attempting to rip my right leg out of it’s socket.

pain management hobbit

Beads of sweat from the barely suppressed pain were spotting my forehead.

As we entered the exhibit from the 2nd level, I sized up the room for my options.

I peered down at the people seated, scattered about the parquet floor, under the giant blue whale.


Okay, why not?

But… this option seems… socially inappropriate?

Maybe…. But my body was screaming at me “REST, DAMMIT!” — so, sitting was not going to cut it.

The blue whale seemed to smile at me, as if beckoning and gently encouraging me to simply and kindly care for my body — to heck, with “social convention.”

So, I took the risk.

I hobbled down the stairs, located a spot, spread my raincoat onto the floor, and gingerly laid my weary and pain-racked body down.

Delicately, of course, as I was wearing a dress and heels. 😉

You wouldn’t believe what happened next!

pain management blue whale
Just moments later, a mother and her young daughter laid down, adjacent to me.

“Mommy! I didn’t know that we were allowed to lay down here! The whale looks so… AMAZING, this way!”

And then, another couple followed suit.

And then, another family. And then, a group of teenagers.

Yes, it was amazing!

Not so socially inappropriate.

By listening to my body (and the Giant Blue Whale), and caring for my body, I started… a THING. At least, for that day. I’ll bet that lots of folks love that view!

So, by paying careful attention to my thoughts, and using CBT pain management techniques of cognitive re-appraisals and pacing, and gently and carefully attending to what my body (heart, mind and soul) needed to feel better, in any given moment (such as yoga, breathing, heat, and ice), I was able to learn how to cope with pain, from a giant blue whale. 🐳

It took another two weeks to heal. and all is well now.

That’s all, folks! I hope that you enjoyed this rather personal tale…

pain management rest

Changing mindset and caring for our bodies can be excellent strategies to manage pain.
Denise Dixon PhD


Please click here for links to references for this blog post, and here to access additional links and resources.


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What do you think about this post? How do you typically manage your pain? Really looking forward to reading and responding to your comments! Thank you so much!

Do you have a suggestion for a blog post? I’d love to hear from you! Simply click here to tell me all about your idea. Thank you!


  1. Ryan Biddulph

    Denise I loved this post! For your analogies, your step by step breakdown and for knowing how excruciating back pain is. I suffered from it from time to time; blinding stuff. The blue whale at the museum is so monstrous and huge and peaceful too; his smile was the Universe speaking to you, to let go social convention and just be and relax. Animals and their images are always teaching, communicating and opening us up. We just need breathe in the pain, become present, and like all feelings, passes, so we can tune into the world around us.

    • Denise Dixon, Ph.D.

      Wow – thank you so very much, for your generous and amazing comment, Ryan! Would you believe that you inspired me to write this post? I took your suggestion — to “get personal” — to heart. One of those somewhat uncomfortable, yet ultimately freeing actions. Because my love of freedom is much stronger than my desire to remain comfortable. Sound familiar? 😉 Thank you again for the comment, and for all of the amazing inspiration that you provide, over at Blogging From Paradise!

Please do not discuss clinical concerns here! Remember, this blog is for informational purposes only. It does not represent a professional relationship between the reader and the author. If you have any clinical concerns, please schedule an appointment, or see your own health care provider. As always if you are experiencing an emergency, please call 911 or proceed directly to your closest emergency room.

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