Following the assumption that stressors play an important part in the etiology and maintenance of psychiatric disorders, it is necessary to evaluate parameters reflecting stress-related physiological reactions. Results from these examinations may help to deepen the insight into the etiology of psychiatric disorders and to elucidate diagnostic uncertainties. One of the best-known stress-related endocrine reactions is the hormonal release of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Dysregulations of this axis are associated with several psychiatric disorders. Profound hyperactivity of the HPA-axis has been found in melancholic depression, alcoholism, and eating disorders. In contrast, posttraumatic stress disorder, stress-related bodily disorders like idiopathic pain syndromes, and chronic fatigue syndrome seem to be associated with diminished HPA activity (lowered activity of the adrenal gland). Hypotheses referring to (a) the psychophysiological meaning and (b) the development of these alterations are discussed. (C) 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.