Organisms tend to be sensitive to drastic changes in environmental conditions. For unicellular microorganisms, variations in physico-chemical conditions are particularly challenging and may result in acclimation, entrance into quiescence, or death through necrotic or autocatalytic pathways. This study focuses on the thecate dinoflagellate Alexandrium tamarense. Cellular responses to oxidative, thermal, and nutrient stress were characterized using stress indicators, such as pigment content, efficiency of photosystem II or production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), as well as hallmarks of apoptosis including activity of caspase-like enzymes and expression of a metacaspase gene homolog. The formation of temporary cysts, a survival strategy of short-term quiescence, was also monitored. Cellular responses appeared to depend on multifactorial influences where type and intensity of stimulus as well as position in cell cycle may act in combination. Sequences of events observed implicate ROS production as a key determinant of stress-related pathways, playing potential roles in intracellular signaling, formation of temporary cysts, or cellular damage. Variations observed in caspase-like activities and metacaspase gene expression did not appear to be associated with programmed cell death pathways; our results suggest a wider range of functions for these proteases in phytoplankton cells, including roles in survival pathways and cell cycle progression.