J’ai la boule au ventre – This literally means “I have a ball in my stomach“, and it refers to a feeling of such stress that your stomach is in knots. It’s all about the anticipation, when there’s something you’re dreading. It’s the perfect phrase to describe that Sunday night feeling when you know something particularly unpleasant awaits you on Monday. Can’t you just feel that weight in your gut?
J’ai l’estomac noué – Now this one is literally “I have a knotted stomach”. Just like in English, it implies that you’re very scared or anxious about an upcoming event. To the point where it’s giving you stomach cramps.
J’ai la trouille – This one’s not quite as easy to picture, but it’s no less foreboding. It means you’re petrified. If you’re completely terrified, you can dial it up a notch by adding the word “blue” so it becomes j’ai une trouille bleue. You can then add de on the end, followed by whatever it is that puts you in that state. Like other words featuring the sound ouille, trouille can be incredibly difficult for English speakers to pronounce, but this video should help.
J’ai le trac – Le trac is similar to la trouille, but it’s more specific in that it’s used for a fear of performing or appearing in front of a crowd. It’s like “stage fright”, and can be used for any kind of performance, including a big presentation at work, or an oral exam at school.
J’appréhende – Literally “to apprehend”, the French use this phrase to refer to something they’re worried about. The same is possible in English, although it’s more common to say “I am apprehensive”. In French, you can stick whatever it is that’s worrying you on the end without any connecting words. You might say for instance J’appréhende la rentrée (I’m worried about going back to school/work).
Ca m’angoisse – The noun angoisse could be placed anywhere on the sliding scale of fear from “anxiety’ to “anguish”. Just like the English word anxiety, angoisse can be used in a medical context for someone who has an anxiety disorder, or more casually for something that you’re stressed out about.
Angoisse can also be turned into a verb, making it much more snappy. It can be something you do to yourself – Je m’angoisse means “I’m stressing out”. Or it can be a result of external factors – Ca m’angoisse de retourner au bureau (I’m anxious about returning to the office). If it gets really bad, you might faire une crise d’angoisse (have an anxiety attack).
Je stresse – French is not known for being more succinct than English, but when it comes to fear maybe it’s true, because this is another example of being able to use one word instead of several. The verb stresser means “to be stressed” or “to get worried”. If you want to emphasise the cause of your woes, you can say la rentrée me stresse (the return to work/school is stressing me out).
Ca me fait flipper – Flipper means “to flip” or “to freak out”, so this expression means “it freaks me out”. If you’re not worried about how you might come across, there’s also the very informal “Je flippe ma race”, meaning “I’m totally freaking out”.
C’est la cata – La cata is short for la catastrophe – you can guess the English translation – so this phrase is an informal way of saying “It’s a disaster”. You’d only use it in spoken conversation or when messaging friends. People in France often say this when they’re being a bit melodramatic.
Je vais faire une crise de nerfs – Crise de nerfs means ‘crisis of nerves’ or a nervous breakdown, and je vais faire une crise de nerfs is the French equivalent of saying “I’m going to have a nervous breakdown”. You can also say Je suis au bord de la crise de nerfs (I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown). It can be used to refer to a genuine breakdown, although as with la cata, it doesn’t have to refer to a full-blown crisis – it’s also an exaggerated way of expressing your annoyance at lots of little things which keep adding up.
These phrases are intended for use on the everyday stresses and strains of life. If you are feeling acute anxiety or stress, read our guide to accessing mental health services in France.