The hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis is the primary modulator of the adrenal glucocorticoid stress response. Activation of this axis occurs by way of a discrete set of neurons in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN). The PVN neuron appears to be affected by multiple sources, including (1) brainstem aminergic/peptidergic afferents; (2) blood-borne information; (3) indirect input from limbic system-associated regions, including the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala; and (4) local-circuit interactions with the preoptic-hypothalamic continuum. Analysis of the literature suggests that different classes of stressor employ different stress circuits. Severe physiologic ("systemic") stress appears to trigger brainstem/circumventricular organ systems that project directly to the paraventricular nucleus. In contrast, stressors requiring interpretation with respect to previous experience ("processive" stressors) reach the PVN by way of multisynaptic limbic pathways. Limbic regions mediating processive stress responses appear to have bisynaptic connections with the PVN, forming intervening connections with preoptic/hypothalamic GABAergic neurons. Stressors of the latter category may thus require interaction with homeostatic information prior to promoting an HPA response. The HPA stress response thus appears to be a product of both the physiologic importance of the stimulus and the specific pathways a given stimulus excites.