With the steadily increasing number of publications in the field of stress research it has become evident that the conventional usage of the stress concept bears considerable problems. The use of the term 'stress' to conditions ranging from even the mildest challenging stimulation to severely aversive conditions, is in our view inappropriate. Review of the literature reveals that the physiological 'stress' response to appetitive, rewarding stimuli that are often not considered to be stressors can be as large as the response to negative stimuli. Analysis of the physiological response during exercise supports the view that the magnitude of the neuroendocrine response reflects the metabolic and physiological demands required for behavioural activity. We propose that the term 'stress' should be restricted to conditions where an environmental demand exceeds the natural regulatory capacity of an organism, in particular situations that include unpredictability and uncontrollability. Physiologically, stress seems to be characterized by either the absence of an anticipatory response (unpredictable) or a reduced recovery (uncontrollable) of the neuroendocrine reaction. The consequences of this restricted definition for stress research and the interpretation of results in terms of the adaptive and/or maladaptive nature of the response are discussed. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd.