Following the discovery of glucocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus and other brain regions, research has focused on understanding the effects of glucocorticoids in the brain and their role in regulating emotion and cognition. Glucocorticoids are essential for adaptation to stressors (allostasis) and in maladaptation resulting from allostatic load and overload. Allostatic overload, which can occur during chronic stress, can reshape the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis through epigenetic modification of genes in the hippocampus, hypothalamus and other stress-responsive brain regions. Glucocorticoids exert their effects on the brain through genomic mechanisms that involve both glucocorticoid receptors and mineralocorticoid receptors directly binding to DNA, as well as by non-genomic mechanisms. Furthermore, glucocorticoids synergize both genomically and non-genomically with neurotransmitters, neurotrophic factors, sex hormones and other stress mediators to shape an organism's present and future responses to a stressful environment. Here, we discuss the mechanisms of glucocorticoid action in the brain and review how glucocorticoids interact with stress mediators in the context of allostasis, allostatic load and stress-induced neuroplasticity.