10 idioms about anxiety if you’re at your wits’ end trying to find the right words for your feelings

  • Are you tearing your hair out as you toss and turn in the middle of the night, while waiting with bated breath?
  • There are many ways to express nervousness in the English language, so here are some useful phrases to use when you’re a bundle of nerves
Sue Ng |

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As the season changes, it’s normal to feel a little down and uneasy because of the colder weather and shorter days. To face the winter blues, you need the right words to express your emotions. Here are some Cantonese slang phrases and English idioms to talk about anxiety.

1. Tear your hair out

Meaning: to feel anxious and upset because you are worried

Example: Eva has been tearing her hair out trying to meet the deadline for the assignment.

2. At your wits’ end

Meaning: to be so worried, confused, or annoyed that you do not know what to do next

Example: The mother was at her wits’ end after finding out her two-year-old son had tested positive for Covid-19.

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3. Go to pieces

Meaning: to be so upset or nervous that you have a breakdown

Example: After losing her parents in a car accident, she went to pieces.

4. (Have) butterflies in the stomach

Meaning: to feel very nervous or frightened about something

Example: Before an exam, I always have butterflies in my stomach.

5. Like a cat on hot bricks

Meaning: very nervous or restless

Example: Martin was like a cat on hot bricks right before making his speech in front of the class.

That is one very nervous cat. Photo: Shutterstock

6. Heart in your mouth

Meaning: to feel extremely nervous

Example: My heart was in my mouth when the plane was about to take off.

7. Hold your breath

Meaning: to wait anxiously or excitedly for something to happen or be announced

Example: Cheryl held her breath as she waited to receive a response from the company after finishing her final interview for a job there.

8. (Be) a bundle of nerves

Meaning: describes someone who is extremely nervous and worried

Example: Tom is always a bundle of nerves before he performs.

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9. With bated breath

Meaning: feeling very anxious or excited

Example: We waited for the announcement with bated breath.

10. Break out in a cold sweat

Meaning: a state of extreme worry and fear

Example: I break out in a cold sweat whenever I visit the dentist.

Fun fact: breaking out in a cold sweat is usually due to sudden fear or stress, which kicks in your body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response. Photo: Shutterstock

Here are two phrases from Cantonese slang ...

爆煲 baau3 bou1 (bao-bowl): “burst pot”

Meaning: describes someone who is stressed out. Literally, the term refers to a pot that exploded because of overheating. People use it to describe someone who burns themselves out.

In English: burn out; stress out; break down; go to pieces

Example: The single mother worked her fingers to the bone to raise her children and finally bao-bowl after working non-stop for 20 hours.

囉囉攣 lo1 lo1 lyun1 (lo-lo-luan): “toss and turn”

Meaning: feeling anxious or restless because of sickness or emotional distress

In English: anxious; restless; butterflies in one’s stomach

Example: The night before the exam, Sam was lo-lo-luan worrying about his performance.

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