Ep. 108: Existential Anxiety and Crisis

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In 1991, my life seemed perfect. I had just started at UCSC, my first choice for schools, not just because of the amazing reputation of the rebel professors, but also because of the ancient redwood forests and proximity to the beach – nature was important to me, and this place had it ALL. 


I had a blast doing new things like skinny dipping, drum circles, and mushroom journeys with friends, majoring in clinical psychology (which I couldn’t get enough of), loving my classes… I had a great boyfriend and I was working at the Outdoor Recreation program as an assistant rock climbing guide as part of my work-study program. 


I felt super blessed. People told me all the time how lucky I was. 


So then why was I having panic attacks? 


I was afraid to leave my room. I was scared to drive through the mountain roads to visit my boyfriend. I was afraid to make friends. I was unsettled and restless. And I felt like something was very, verywrong.  


On the outside it seemed perfect, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. And that made me scared. I thought I was having mini-strokes. I was partying too much to escape. I thoguht I was going to have a psychotic break like my father. 


One day, desperate for an answer, I was wandering around a bookstore with a particularly large collection of spiritual books. The spine of one book caught my eye: Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, by the Czech psychiatrists Stanislav and Christina Gorf. 


I read the book sleeve and the first few pages and realized: Holy shit. I think I’m having a spiritual emergency. 


Looking back, I realize it was more of a spiritual awakening that was going to turn into a spiritual emergency if I didn’t get support. But those first few pages helped me realize that I wasn’t going crazy. It was a spiritual experience. 


It was that period of intense suffering and fear that led me to seek out meditation – I felt a strong calling to learn how to meditate. A lot of the places I reached out to charged too much, so I kept searching until I found a rebellious Tibetan Buddhist nun from Australia named Robina Courtin. 


She was my kind of nun, teaching me to meditate and talking shout sex, cigarettes and chocolate;)  It was in my sessions with her that my love affair with meditation, Buddhism, rebel nuns, and Tibetan culture began. I started to emerge from my existential crisis (although it would take years before the anxiety took more of a back seat). 


I see others in existential crisis often, especially in people interested in the Adventure Mastermind. For some, it might look like wanting to discover their Soul Purpose, or help clarify the meaning of their life, or how to deliver and manifest their purpose to the world. Missing this can really be a cause of deep pain, and a source of deep longing in humans. 


Maybe you can relate to this – maybe you’ve had an experience that has completely changed you, but you also notice that you don’t feel so great about it. You might even feel burdened. 


A spiritual emergency occurs when a spiritual awakening process goes too fast – too much too soon. This leads to a person feeling really destabilized and can even be frightening. 


We start to open to our spirituality in the awakening and then it overwhelms us, 


Things are at a higher risk of transforming from spiritual awakening to emergency when there’s also a shock that triggers the experience, like death of a loved one or a life-threatening illness. It can also happen when there’s a lack of support or skilled intervention. 


An existential crisis is different – it can be a result of a spiritual awakening or emergency – even lead to an emergency if unsupported. The most common thing I see with clients in an existential crisis is a loss of meaning, or at least an acute awareness of the lack of meaning. 


The way I see it, a spiritual awakening is the beginning of the path, and the existential crisis is a specific part of the path that’s challenging. 


Here are just a few of the signs that we might be in an existential crisis (check out the full Episode for more): 

  • You might be searching for purpose and meaning. It’s a deep longing, not just “ wouldn’t it be nice if I knew…” 
  • There may be a sense of loneliness, isolation, depression, emptiness, and disconnection from others. 
  • Like me, you may feel like you’re about to lose your mind or that something has gone very very wrong. 
  • You feel like you’re walking in a dream and you’re not sure who you are anymore. Or you look at your achievements and start to wonder if you’ve wasted your time. (spoiler alert: you probably didn’t!) 
  • You begin to feel a sense of anxiety about death… especially about dying with regrets or dying without having reached our full potential. 


Why do we experience an existential crisis? Sometimes it comes from a shock to the system, or a more chronic exposure to stressors, or a “dark night of the soul.” It can also be from a life transition/new stage of life, questioning our religious beliefs, psychedelic experiences, the birth of a baby, and more. So, these triggering events can be negative and positive. 


They also seem to be more common right now. And when we look at the symptoms of an existential crisis – questioning society’s values and definitions of success, feeling separated from others, questioning our life purpose – it can make intuitive sense that we see a crisis more often in a world that encourages us to compare ourselves to others, to seek out external sources of validation, to find our worth and lovability in others. 


Here’s the good news: it’s really common for rebel one to experience existential anxiety. You don’t just follow the herd. You question. You think for yourself. And that can feel lonely and confusing. 


While some people may see existential anxiety as the result of depression, we can also choose to look at it as part of our evolution. The breakdown before the breakthrough. 


It’s a chance for us to inquire with true depth and honesty and authenticity our Soul Purpose, our meaning in life. It’s a chance for us to deepen our spiritual practice, get our priorities straight, and figure out what really matters. 


And it can’t be avoided. If we try to avoid change and impermanence, we’re fighting with reality and create so much unnecessary suffering. This discomfort and suffering is part of our path.  


So… what the heck should we do if we feel we’re in an existential crisis? 


First, make sure it is what it is. Knowing the correct diagnosis is really important, because putting someone one meds who doesn’t actually need them is not helpful. And conversely, it’s dangerous to assume that severe symptoms are an existential crisis if, in fact, serious depression or psychosis or other illness could be going on. 


// Get out of your analytic brain and into creativity. You’re not going to be able to think your way through this one. It could be by writing poetry or a song, through art, or journaling. 


// Explore your dreams. We can receive many messages about our purpose and our life’s meaning in dreams. 


// Have a mindfulness practice. When we are fully present, we are less likely to get hooked by fear or worry or regret. 


// Spend more time in the wilderness, in nature.  


// Chill the frick out and stop doing so much. Seriously. We are often a human doing instead of human being. This is not the way we evolved to be. 


// Do a guided experience, retreat or wilderness fast that specializes in this. Obviously, this is my jam and the whole reason I created the Adventure Mastermind. 


It’s important to remember that as all things are impermanent, so is an existential crisis, even though it can feel like forever. If you’re in an existential crisis, I hope that, like me, you can look back on it when you are through it and see that it was an essential part of your journey and that you’d do it all over again because what grew out of it was so incredible and valuable. 


In this Episode, you will learn: 


// My personal story of becoming a rebel Buddhist 

// The difference between an existential crisis and a spiritual awakening 

// Signs you might be in an existential crisis 

// Why we experience existential crises 

// Why existential anxiety is so common today 

// How we can help ourselves when in an existential crisis 



// Robina Courtin and the Liberation Prison Project 

// Episode 55: Self-Compassion 

// Episode 71: How to Find Your Purpose 

// Episode 99: Rebel Purpose 

// Episode 105: Soul vs Spirit 

// If you want to start integrating all of you into this one precious life we have, apply for the Adventure Mastermind. It’s Soul Work. Deep work. Important, necessary, and essential to what the world needs right now. Be a part of it. 


If you’re remotely curious, apply. It will help you get clear, and then we can chat to see if it’s actually a good fit. Trust me – it’s an intense 6 months so I am just as invested as you are in making sure it’s an amazing match. Head over to AdventureMastermind.com and apply for the Summer cohort. We have 2 altered states retreats, weekly coaching, virtual retreats, and more. I’ve got you! 


// If you’re new to the squad, grab the Rebel Buddhist Toolkit I created at RebelBuddhist.com. It has all you need to start creating a life of more freedom, adventure, and purpose. You’ll also get access to the Rebel Buddhist FB group, and tune in weekly when I go live on new topics. 


// Want to dive into this work on a deeper level on your own time? To study it and practice it together with a group of people with the same goals of freedom, adventure and purpose? Check out Freedom School – the community for ALL things related to freedom, inside and out.