The aim of this study was to explore nurses' experiences of stress within the context of intensive care. The theoretical perspective for the study builds on a cognitive-phenomenological-transactional theory of stress and coping and the theory of cognitive dissonance. Respondents were 36 registered nurses recruited from 10 intensive care units (general, neonatal and thoracic units). Their experience as nurses ranged from one to 32 years. These intensive care units had similar structural characteristics, namely a high working pace, advanced technology, constrained finances, frequent reorganizations, a shortage of registered nurses and all were filled to overcapacity. Data were collected in open-ended interviews that were audio-taped and transcribed. A content analysis identified four contradictory themes: (1) controlled by the work situation--needing to be in control; (2) constrained by prioritization--wanting to do more; (3) lacking the authority to act--knowing that something should be done; and (4) professional distance--interpersonal involvement. These four themes were synthesized at a higher level of abstraction into a main theme: stress induced by dissonant imperatives, which conceptualizes nursing stress in the intensive care unit. In conclusion, dissonant imperatives might lead to stress in intensive care nursing.