A variety of cognitive disorders are worsened by stress exposure and involve dysfunction of the newly evolved prefrontal cortex (PFC). Exposure to acute, uncontrollable stress increases catecholamine release in PFC, reducing neuronal firing and impairing cognitive abilities. High levels of noradrenergic α1-adrenoceptor and dopaminergic D1 receptor stimulation activate feedforward calcium–protein kinase C and cyclic AMP–protein kinase A signaling, which open potassium channels to weaken synaptic efficacy in spines. In contrast, high levels of catecholamines strengthen the primary sensory cortices, amygdala and striatum, rapidly flipping the brain from reflective to reflexive control of behavior. These mechanisms are exaggerated by chronic stress exposure, where architectural changes lead to persistent loss of PFC function. Understanding these mechanisms has led to the successful translation of prazosin and guanfacine for treating stress-related disorders. Dysregulation of stress signaling pathways by genetic insults likely contributes to PFC deficits in schizophrenia, while age-related insults initiate interacting vicious cycles that increase vulnerability to Alzheimer's degeneration.