Most organisms, including ourselves, are exposed to environmental stressors at various points during life, and responses to such stressors have been optimised by evolution to give the best fitness outcomes. It is expected that environmental change will substantially increase long-term stress exposure in many animal groups in the coming decades. A major challenge for biologists is to understand and predict how this will influence individuals, populations and ecosystems, and over what time scale such effects will occur. This requires a multi-disciplinary approach, combining studies of mechanisms with studies of fitness consequences for individuals and their descendants. In this review, I discuss the positive and negative fitness consequences of responses to stressful environments, particularly during early life, and with an emphasis on studies in birds. As many of the mechanisms underlying stress responses are highly conserved across the vertebrate groups, the findings from these studies have general applicability when interpreted in a life history context. One important route that has recently been identified whereby chronic stress exposure can affect health and longevity over long time frames is via effects on telomere dynamics. Much of this work has so far been done on humans, and is correlational in nature, but studies on other taxa, and experimental work, are increasing. I summarise the relevant aspects of vertebrate telomere biology and critically appraise our current knowledge with a view to pointing out important future research directions for our understanding of how stress exposure influences life histories.