The ability of myocardium to successfully compensate for, and adapt to, stress ultimately determines whether the heart will decompensate and fail, or whether it will instead maintain preserved function. Despite the importance of the myocardial response to environmental stress, very little is known with respect to the biochemical mechanisms that are responsible for mediating and integrating the stress response in the heart. In the present review we will summarize recent experimental material which suggests that cytokines that are expressed within the myocardium in response to a environment injury, namely tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), interleukin-1 (IL-1) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), may play an important role in initiating and integrating homeostatic responses within the heart. However, these 'stress-activated' cytokines all have the potential to produce cardiac decompensation when expressed at sufficiently high concentrations. Accordingly, the theme that will emerge from this discussion is that the short-term expression of stress-activated cytokines within the heart may provide the heart with an adaptive response to stress, whereas long-term expression of these molecules may be frankly maladaptive by producing cardiac decompensation.