Introduction of a socially naive male rat into the home territory of a resident counterpart results in agonistic interactions, leading to the rapid social defeat of the intruder. Exposure to the aggressive resident produces a stress-response profile consisting of neuroendocrine activation and coping behaviors such as submission. The present studies examined the dependence of these adaptive responses on endogenous brain Corticotropin-Releasing Factor (CRF), a peptide hormone known to coordinate neuronally mediated- and pituitary-adrenal responses to stress. The Elevated Plus-Maze was employed as an animal model of emotionality in which stressors reduce subsequent exploration of open maze arms without walls in favor of enclosed maze arms. A CRF antagonist, alpha-hel CRF9-41, administered intracerebroventricularly (5 and 25 micrograms i.c.v.) immediately post-stress and 5 min prior to maze testing reversed the heightened emotionality produced by the resident exposure stressor. This action paralleled that of an anxiolytic dose of the short-acting benzodiazepine, midazolam (1.5 mg/kg i.p.). Intra-amygdaloid administration of lower doses of the CRF antagonist (125, 250 and 500 ng i.c.) also reversed, dose-dependently, the effect of exposure to an aggressive resident without altering the behavior of unstressed control animals. Further, the enhanced release of ACTH and corticosterone following social conflict was not modified over the short term by the intra-amygdaloid dose of CRF antagonist (250 ng i.c.) which was effective in reversing stress-induced hyper-emotionality. These results suggest that limbic system CRF substrates exert an anxiogenic effect on the exploratory behavior of socially defeated rats via a pituitary-adrenal-independent mechanism.