We examined the effects of acute and chronic psychogenic stress on the activation pattern of enkephalin-containing perikarya in the rat ventrolateral medulla. Rats allocated to the chronic stress groups were subjected to 90 min of immobilization for 10 days. On the 11th day, the chronically stressed rats were exposed to homotypic (90-min immobilization) or to heterotypic but still psychogenic (90-min immobilization coupled to air jet stress) stress. The acute stress group was subjected once to an acute 90-min immobilization. For each group, the rats were anesthetized either before stress (time 0) or 90, 180, and 270 min after the onset of stress. Brain sections were then processed using immunocytochemistry (Fos protein) followed by radioactive in situ hybridization histochemistry (enkephalin mRNA). Following immobilization, the acute group displayed a marked increase in the number of activated enkephalin-containing perikarya within the paragigantocellularis and lateral reticular nuclei. This level of activation was sustained up to 180 min following the onset of the immobilization stress and had returned to baseline levels by 270 min from the initiation of the stress. However, this stress-induced activation of enkephalin-containing perikarya of the ventrolateral medulla was not seen following either homotypic or heterotypic stress in the chronically stressed group. These results provide evidence that enkephalin-containing perikarya of the ventrolateral medulla may constitute a potential circuit through which they regulate some aspect of the stress responses. Conversely, this enkephalinergic influence from the ventrolateral medulla was shown to be absent following chronic stress exposure. This would suggest a decrease in enkephalin inhibitory input originating from the ventrolateral medulla, thereby allowing a neuroendocrine and/or autonomic response to chronic stress.