The feeling when you have to do something, but you think that something might go wrong that prevents you from succeeding. You don’t feel in control of the situation.

You feel nervous when you have to do something that involves some risk: things may go wrong1. For example, when you have to give an important presentation, when you approach a person whom you would like to get introduced to, or when you have to take a driving test. Nervousness is inherently linked to doing things – if you are passively waiting for something to happen, you won’t feel nervous, but rather something like anxiety or worry. You can also be nervous about something potentially positive. Most other fear-emotions are about the possibility of losing something you already have. You can also be nervous, on the other hand, about the possibility to not attain something, such as a medal (for your performance in a sports match), a position (for your performance in a job interview), or the respect of your peers (for your performance giving a presentation). In nervousness, you contemplate the probability of succeeding in the thing that you want. The word ‘probability’ implies another important aspect of nervousness: the situation is not entirely under your control. Even in a situation in which you are technically in control, like when giving a presentation, you can still be nervous because you think that you may get a blackout, or that you may run out of time before you finish.

Time in general is a very common elicitor of nervousness; specifically, having too little time to do something. Walking to get the bus may otherwise be a relaxing affair, but when the bus is about to leave, it can become a nervous activity.

In the comic, Murphy gets very nervous when he learns that the whole department is already waiting on him for his presentation, for which he thought he still had time to prepare. It is made worse when he learns that senior management is also present.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“I really hope this will go well!”

“I… I’m not sure that I can do this.”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Nervousness & Insecurity

If you have to give an important presentation, you can feel nervous and insecure. Both emotions seem to relate to personal success and failure. The difference is that you are nervous for what you do and achieve, and insecure for who you are in the eyes of others. Because most of life’s achievements are somehow linked to recognition (or rejection) of others, the two emotions can often co-occur. However, someone can feel nervous without feeling insecure when they have to do a difficult job that does not impact how other people see them. For example, a doctor can be nervous for a complicated operation, but probably not insecure. Conversely, someone can feel insecure about themselves in a situation that does not require them to do or achieve anything.

Nervousness & Doubt

Doubt and nervousness are both fears in the context of action: you have to do something but something may go wrong. For example, a company manager may be both nervous and in doubt when he has to make an important decision about the company’s future in very little time. However, not all cases of action involve decision: when you are studying for a difficult test you may feel nervous, but not in doubt. Nervousness, on the other hand, involves uncertainty about an outcome and a lack of control over the situation, which is not necessary to feel doubt. For example, someone may doubt between doing either of two projects, and know exactly what the pros and cons of both are.

Sources and further reading