Assessing the genetic adaptive potential of populations and species is essential for better understanding evolutionary processes. However, the expression of genetic variation may depend on environmental conditions, which may speed up or slow down evolutionary responses. Thus, the same selection pressure may lead to different responses. Against this background, we here investigate the effects of thermal stress on genetic variation, mainly under controlled laboratory conditions. We estimated additive genetic variance (VA), narrow-sense heritability (h2) and the coefficient of genetic variation (CVA) under both benign control and stressful thermal conditions. We included six species spanning a diverse range of plant and animal taxa, and a total of 25 morphological and life-history traits. Our results show that (1) thermal stress reduced fitness components, (2) the majority of traits showed significant genetic variation and that (3) thermal stress affected the expression of genetic variation (VA, h2 or CVA) in only one-third of the cases (25 of 75 analyses, mostly in one clonal species). Moreover, the effects were highly species-specific, with genetic variation increasing in 11 and decreasing in 14 cases under stress. Our results hence indicate that thermal stress does not generally affect the expression of genetic variation under laboratory conditions but, nevertheless, increases or decreases genetic variation in specific cases. Consequently, predicting the rate of genetic adaptation might not be generally complicated by environmental variation, but requires a careful case-by-case consideration.