Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response that causes survivors of abuse to sympathize with their abuser. It’s considered a coping mechanism, not a mental health diagnosis.
Stockholm syndrome is commonly linked to high profile kidnappings and hostage situations. Aside from famous crime cases, regular people may also develop this psychological condition in response to various types of trauma.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what exactly the Stockholm syndrome is, how it got its name, the types of situations that may lead to someone developing this syndrome, and what can be done to treat it.
Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response. It occurs when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers. This psychological connection develops over the course of the days, weeks, months, or even years of captivity or abuse.
With this syndrome, hostages or abuse victims may come to sympathize with their captors. This is the opposite of the fear, terror, and disdain that might be expected from the victims in these situations.
Over the course of time, some victims do come to develop positive feelings toward their captors. They may even begin to feel as if they share common goals and causes. The victim may begin to develop negative feelings toward the police or authorities. They may resent anyone who may be trying to help them escape from the dangerous situation they’re in.
This paradox does not happen with every hostage or victim, and it’s unclear why it occurs when it does.
Many psychologists and medical professionals consider Stockholm syndrome a coping mechanism, or a way to help victims handle the trauma of a terrifying situation. Indeed, the history of the syndrome may help explain why that is.
Episodes of what is known as Stockholm syndrome have likely occurred for many decades, even centuries. But it wasn’t until 1973 that this response to entrapment or abuse came to be named.
That’s when two men held four people hostage for 6 days after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. After the hostages were released, they refused to testify against their captors and even began raising money for their defense.
After that, psychologists and mental health experts assigned the term “Stockholm syndrome” to the condition that occurs when hostages develop an emotional or psychological connection to the people who held them in captivity.
Despite being well known, however, Stockholm syndrome is not recognized by the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This manual is used by mental health experts and other specialists to diagnose mental health disorders.
Stockholm syndrome is recognized by three distinct events or “symptoms.”
Symptoms of Stockholm syndrome
- The victim develops positive feelings toward the person holding them captive or abusing them.
- The victim develops negative feelings toward police, authority figures, or anyone who might be trying to help them get away from their captor. They may even refuse to cooperate against their captor.
- The victim begins to perceive their captor’s humanity and believe they have the same goals and values.
These feelings typically happen because of the emotional and highly charged situation that occurs during a hostage situation or abuse cycle.
For example, people who are kidnapped or taken hostage often feel threatened by their captor, but they are also highly reliant on them for survival. If the kidnapper or abuser shows them some kindness, they may begin to feel positive feelings toward their captor for this “compassion.”
Over time, that perception begins to reshape and skew how they view the person keeping them hostage or abusing them.
Several famous kidnappings have resulted in high profile episodes of Stockholm syndrome including those listed below.
High profile cases
- Patty Hearst. Perhaps most famously, the granddaughter of businessman and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). During her captivity, she renounced her family, adopted a new name, and even joined the SLA in robbing banks. Later, Hearst was arrested, and she used Stockholm syndrome as a defense in her trial. That defense did not work, and she was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
- Natascha Kampusch. In 1998, then 10-year-old Natascha was kidnapped and kept underground in a dark, insulated room. Her kidnapper, Wolfgang Přiklopil, held her captive for more than 8 years. During that time, he showed her kindness, but he also beat her and threatened to kill her. Natascha was able to escape, and Přiklopil committed suicide. News accounts at the time report Natascha “wept inconsolably.”
- Mary McElroy: In 1933, four men held 25-year-old Mary at gunpoint, chained her to walls in an abandoned farmhouse, and demanded ransom from her family. When she was released, she struggled to name her captors in their subsequent trial. She also publicly expressed sympathy for them.
While Stockholm syndrome is commonly associated with a hostage or kidnapping situation, it can actually apply to several other circumstances and relationships.
Stockholm syndrome may also arise in these situations
- Abusive relationships.
Researchhas shown that abused individuals may develop emotional attachments to their abuser. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, as well as incest, can last for years. Over this time, a person may develop positive feelings or sympathy for the person abusing them.
- Child abuse. Abusers frequently threaten their victims with harm, even death. Victims may try to avoid upsetting their abuser by being compliant. Abusers may also show kindness that could be perceived as a genuine feeling. This may further confuse the child and lead to them not understanding the negative nature of the relationship.
- Sex trafficking trade. Individuals who are trafficked often rely on their abusers for necessities, like food and water. When the abusers provide that, the victim may begin to
develop positive feelingstoward their abuser. They may also resist cooperating with police for fear of retaliation or thinking they have to protect their abusers to protect themselves.
- Sports coaching. Being involved in sports is a great way for people to build skills and relationships. Unfortunately, some of those relationships may ultimately be negative. Harsh coaching techniques can even become abusive. The athlete may tell themselves their coach’s behavior is for their own good, and this, according to a 2018 study, can ultimately become a form of Stockholm syndrome.
If you believe you or someone you know has developed Stockholm syndrome, you can find help. In the short term, counseling or psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder can help alleviate the immediate issues associated with recovery, such as anxiety and depression.
Long-term psychotherapy can further help you or a loved one with recovery.
Psychologists and psychotherapists can teach you healthy coping mechanisms and response tools to help you understand what happened, why it happened, and how you can move forward. Reassigning positive emotions can help you understand what happened wasn’t your fault.
Stockholm syndrome is a coping strategy. Individuals who are abused or kidnapped may develop it.
Fear or terror might be most common in these situations, but some individuals begin to develop positive feelings toward their captor or abuser. They may not want to work with or contact the police. They may even be hesitant to turn on their abuser or kidnapper.
Stockholm syndrome is not an official mental health diagnosis. Instead, it is thought to be a coping mechanism. Individuals who are abused or trafficked or who are the victims of incest or terror may develop it. Proper treatment can go a long way to helping with recovery.