Cellular stress triggers reprogramming of transcription, which is required for the maintenance of homeostasis under adverse growth conditions. Stress-induced changes in transcription include induction of cyto-protective genes and repression of genes related to the regulation of the cell cycle, transcription and metabolism. Induction of transcription is mediated through the activation of stress-responsive transcription factors that facilitate the release of stalled RNA polymerase II and so allow for transcriptional elongation. Repression of transcription, in turn, involves components that retain RNA polymerase II in a paused state on gene promoters. Moreover, transcription during stress is regulated by a massive activation of enhancers and complex changes in chromatin organization. In this Review, we highlight the latest research regarding the molecular mechanisms of transcriptional reprogramming upon stress in the context of specific proteotoxic stress responses, including the heat-shock response, unfolded protein response, oxidative stress response and hypoxia response.