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I have heard the word spoken on occasion, but I am not sure if it can be used in both situations. Thank you.

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It can mean both awful and very very

これは大変だ。(This is terrible)

大変[助]{たす}かりました。(You helped me very much!)

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Adding to paullb's answer, if you don't use 大変 as an adverb or adjective modifying another word, it usually means awful or terrible.

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