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Are these words interchangeable? When would you use one over the other?

For example, is it correct to say you "feel nervous" or "feel anxious"? Is it correct to say you are an "anxious person" or a "nervous person"?

The Oxford Dictionaries website defines anxious as "feeling ... nervousness ... about something with an uncertain outcome" or "... characterised by nervousness". Nervousness is defined as "the quality or state of being nervous". Nervous is defined as "anxious or apprehensive". It seems circular to me.

In fact, one of the example sentences of "nervous" is:

The days are gone when I am going to get nervous about games or worry about whether or not I play well.

Yet, according to the definition of "anxious", it sounds to me that "anxious" would be a better fit, since it relates to "something with an uncertain outcome".

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Informally, anxiety and nervousness are practically synonyms.

However, "anxious" has a stronger connotation that someone has a specific object of concern.

For instance, you can be "anxiously awaiting" something, and the phrase "nervously awaiting" doesn't substitute for it without changing the meaning.

Someone anxiously awaiting is simply tense with anticipation or eagerness, whereas someone nervously awaiting is filled with some sense of dread.

A key example would be this:

I see some of you are { anxious | *nervous } to get going, so I will try to fast forward to the end of my speech.

Here, basically "anxious" denotes a state of the eagerness to get going (due to impatience and boredom). This state shows up as nervous-looking fidgeting, which the speaker notices in the audience, prompting the remark. People are glancing toward their exit or looking at their watches, showing signs of wanting to get out of their seats, and so forth.

"To feel anxious" when no specific object is given, or "to feel anxious about something" is the same as "to feel nervous" or "to feel nervous about something".

"To feel anxious for something" or "to feel anxious to do something" have no analogy in "to feel nervous": you cannot be nervous for your next paycheck, but you can be anxious for it, and you cannot be nervous to leave, but you can be anxious to leave.

On the other hand, ironically, anxiety is also a psychological term as in "anxiety disorder". This is a severe form of chronic nervousness which is not called "nervousness disorder". A sufferer from anxiety disorder, however, is not called (by a professional psychiatrist) "an anxious person", because that has connotations of a temporary state: someone who is temporarily nervous for some good reason.

Outside of psychology, in ordinary language, to be nervous has stronger connotations of a persistent mental state than anxious. It would be better to describe someone who has an anxious/nervous personality as "a nervous person", or a "chronically/habitually anxious person". The phrase "nervous person" has less of an need for such qualification; the habitual aspect of it somewhat more understood.

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I hear anxious as connoting someone who worries a lot, where as nervous connotes a person who is easily disturbed or distressed. I think you can generally use them interchangeably, but if you did want to make a fine distinction, the anxious person is more reacting to internal fears, the nervous person is reacting more to the outside world.

  • A person who feels nervous isn't necessarily a nervous person. – Kaz Dec 14 '13 at 0:12
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I have anxiety and I'm often very nervous around people I'm not familiar with. I find that "anxious" usually refers to a person who worries a lot about internal fears and issues, whereas the "nervous" person would be more afraid about the outside world. I can relate to both.

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anxious

adjective
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BAD: I always feel anxious when I have to make a speech.
GOOD: I always feel nervous when I have to make a speech.


anxious = worried because you fear that something bad may happen or may have happened: 'Their daughter hadn't come home from school and they were anxious about her safety.' 'I knew it was just a minor operation, but I couldn't help feeling anxious.'
nervous = worried because you are in or about to enter a stressful situation: 'I was so nervous about the exam that I couldn't sleep.' 'It was our first television appearance and we were all feeling nervous.'

Source: Longman Dictionary of Common Errors by Pearson Education Limited 1990-2011

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Anxiety appears to me to be a Psychological Disorder.

Nervousness, on the other hand, seems to me to be caused by being overstimulated by the environment surrounding you at the time. This could be mental caused by requirements of the task at hand. Emotional caused by, perhaps, the illness of a loved one. Physical caused by the need for endurance, such as in a race, External noise, such as noise caused by chatter, running machinery, etc.

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