Current climate change predictions hint to more frequent extreme weather events, including extended droughts, making better understanding of the impacts of water stress on trees even more important. At the individual plant level, stomatal closure as a result of water deficit leads to reduced CO2 availability in the leaf, which can lead to photo-oxidative stress. Photorespiration and the Mehler reaction can maintain electron transport rates under low internal CO2, but result in production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). If electron consumption is decreased, upstream photochemical processes can be affected and light energy is absorbed in excess of photochemical requirements. Trees evolved to cope with excess energy and elevated concentration of ROS by activating photoprotective and antioxidative defence systems. The meta-analysis we present here assessed responses of these defence systems reported in 50 studies. We found responses to vary depending on stress intensity, foliage type and habitat, and on whether experiments were done in the field or in controlled environments. In general, drought increased concentrations of antioxidants and photoprotective pigments. However, severe stress caused degradation of antioxidant concentrations and oxidation of antioxidant pools. Evergreen trees seemed to preferentially reinforce membrane-bound protection systems zeaxanthin and tocopherol, whereas deciduous species showed greater responses in water-soluble antioxidants ascorbic acid and glutathione. Trees and shrubs from arid versus humid habitats vary in their antioxidative and photoprotective defence responses. In field experiments, drought had greater effects on some defence compounds than under controlled conditions.