The intense feeling when something bad is happening to you at this moment. You feel that you need help, because you cannot cope.

You experience distress when something very bad is happening to you, right now, and you don’t know how to deal with it1. For example, you are alone at home and suddenly in tremendous pain. You and another person are sitting in an empty waiting room, and suddenly the other person is having a heart attack. Or, you are giving an important presentation and suddenly you forget what you wanted to say.

Most emotions are about something that happened in the past, such as sadness or anger, or about something that might happen in the future, like fear or longing. Distress is one of the few emotions that are about something that is happening at this moment. The second aspect that makes distress exceptional is its adaptive response. Most negative emotions are evoked in order to solve, prevent, cope with, or get away from the negative situation that evoked it. However, in distress, the situation is so overwhelming that you are not able to cope or deal with it yourself. Instead, distress is characterized by looking or calling out for help, even screaming in the hope that someone will hear you (‘distress calls’)1. Although this response may seem relatively unsophisticated, and a bit of a last resort, a display of distress can make other people more likely to help you. This is most evident in infants, who still depend on others for their basic survival.

In the comic, Murphy realizes that he lost the thumb drive that contains the important presentation he is about to give to the senior management.

Movie clips


Typical expressions


“Somebody do something!”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Distress & Desperation

Distress and desperation are both emotions that someone can have who is seriously in trouble. They are both characterized by being overwhelmed, not knowing what to do, and if possible, finding others to help you. The key difference between the emotions is that desperation is about not reaching a crucial goal, and thus future-directed, while distress is about something bad that is happening to you right now. For example, if you just dropped and broke your new phone, you are likely to feel distress, but not desperation, because there is not a goal involved.

Distress & Fear

On paper, distress and fear are relatively simple to distinguish: you feel fear if you see a threat that may harm you, when you feel distress, the threat is already harming you. In practice it can sometimes be more difficult to set them apart. For example, imagine you are running away from a wild animal. At first the animal is at a distance behind you, and you feel fear for the possibility that it will catch you. As the animal gets closer and closer, the chance that this will happen grows, and your fear will increasingly transform into distress. There is not one point where you are only feeling fear, and another where you are just feeling distress. Rather, these two emotions organically transition into one another.

Sources and further reading