Increasingly, levels of the 'stress hormones' cortisol and corticosterone are being used by ecologists as indicators of physiological stress in wild vertebrates. The amplitude of hormonal response is assumed to correlate with the overall health of an animal and, by extension, the health of the population. However, much of what is known about the physiology of stress has been elucidated by the biomedical research community. I summarize five physiological mechanisms that regulate hormone release during stress that should be useful to ecologists and conservationists. Incorporating these physiological mechanisms into the design and interpretation of ecological studies will make these increasingly popular studies of stress in ecological settings more rigorous.