The integrated stress response (ISR) integrates a broad range of environmental and endogenous stress signals to the phosphorylation of the alpha-subunit of eukaryotic translation initiation factor 2 (eIF2 alpha). Although intense or prolonged activation of this pathway is known to induce apoptosis, the molecular mechanisms coupling stress-induced eIF2 alpha phosphorylation to the cell death machinery have remained incompletely understood. In this study, we characterized apoptosis initiation in response to classical activators of the ISR (tunicamycin, UVC, elevated osmotic pressure, arsenite). We found that all applied stress stimuli activated a mitochondrial pathway of apoptosis initiation. Rapid and selective down-regulation of the anti-apoptotic BCL-2 family protein MCL-1 preceded the activation of BAX, BAK, and caspases. Stabilization of MCL-1 blocked apoptosis initiation, while cells with reduced MCL-1 protein content were strongly sensitized to stress-induced apoptosis. Stress-induced elimination of MCL-1 occurred with unchanged protein turnover and independently of MCL-1 mRNA levels. In contrast, stress-induced phosphorylation of eIF2 alpha at Ser(51) was both essential and sufficient for the down-regulation of MCL-1 protein in stressed cells. These findings indicate that stress-induced phosphorylation of eIF2 alpha is directly coupled to mitochondrial apoptosis regulation via translational repression of MCL-1. Down-regulation of MCL-1 enables but not enforces apoptosis initiation in stressed cells.