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.