The amygdala integrates and processes incoming information pertinent to reward and to emotions such as fear and anxiety that promote survival by warning of potential danger. Basolateral amygdala (BLA) communicates bi-directionally with brain regions affecting cognition, motivation and stress responses including prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, nucleus accumbens and hindbrain regions that trigger norepinephrine-mediated stress responses. Disruption of intrinsic amygdala and BLA regulatory neurocircuits is often caused by dysfunctional neuroplasticity frequently due to molecular alterations in local GABAergic circuits and principal glutamatergic output neurons. Changes in local regulation of BLA excitability underlie behavioral disturbances characteristic of disorders including post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and stress-induced relapse to drug use. In this Review, we discuss molecular mechanisms and neural circuits that regulate physiological and stress-induced dysfunction of BLA/amygdala and its principal output neurons. We consider effects of stress on motivated behaviors that depend on BLA; these include drug taking and drug seeking, with emphasis on nicotine-dependent behaviors. Throughout, we take a translational approach by integrating decades of addiction research on animal models and human trials. We show that changes in BLA function identified in animal addiction models illuminate human brain imaging and behavioral studies by more precisely delineating BLA mechanisms. In summary, BLA is required to promote responding for natural reward and respond to second-order drug-conditioned cues; reinstate cue-dependent drug seeking; express stress-enhanced reacquisition of nicotine intake; and drive anxiety and fear. Converging evidence indicates that chronic stress causes BLA principal output neurons to become hyperexcitable.