What is Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome is a psychological condition in which a hostage bonds and sympathizes with the kidnapper or captor. The syndrome is named after a 1973 hostage situation in Stockholm, Sweden. During an attempted bank robbery, several bank employees were taken hostage, and during their six-day captivity, they began to feel sympathy toward their captors and became fearful of the police.
The emotional response of Stockholm syndrome isn’t a one-way street—both hostage and captor may begin to feel this bond. In fact, the attachment is strong enough even for the victim to feel hostility toward any law enforcement officials who attempt a rescue. The bond may also help both parties survive the situation: The hostage is less likely to suffer violence from the captor, and the reduced tendency toward violence helps protect the captor from law enforcement. The bond between hostage and captor may even continue after the hostage is released.
Researchers also have identified Stockholm syndrome in relationships, even in the context of severe domestic abuse. In both hostage situations and in relationships, Stockholm syndrome can develop in the captive person as a result of the captor or abuser deciding to not commit violence (toward a hostage) or to stop the abuse (in relationships), even temporarily. In relationships, this may be called the honeymoon phase, when the abuser apologizes and promises to stop the abuse.
Studies have found that the psychological bond of Stockholm syndrome is a defense mechanism against the stress and emotional trauma of the hostage situation for both hostage and captor. This bond typically develops over a period of time in long-term abusive situations. However, in some cases, this bond can form quickly, even in only a few days, as was the case of the bank robbery hostage situation in 1973. Scientists don’t know why some victims develop Stockholm syndrome and others do not.
What are the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome?
The most common symptom of Stockholm syndrome is the victim of the kidnapping, abuse or hostile situation feeling positive emotions toward the aggressor. Additionally, the victim may develop negative feelings or even animosity toward outsiders, such as law enforcement, friends or family members who try to intervene in the situation.
Another possible symptom of Stockholm syndrome is a reciprocal attachment of the aggressor to the victim.
Hostages may also experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a common condition coinciding with Stockholm syndrome. Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Flashbacks or dreams about the traumatic event
- Emotional or physical distress in a situation that reminds the victim of the traumatic event
- Feelings of hopelessness or emotional numbness
- Feeling detached from friends and family
- Memory problems
- Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- Feelings of guilt or shame
- Self-destructive behavior
These symptoms may require the help of a mental health professional for effective treatment.
What causes Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome is a coping mechanism used by victims of certain abusive situations to deal with the highly stressful and traumatic event, which may occur over a long period of time. In fact, Stockholm syndrome can actually protect the victim and help ensure survival, especially in potentially violent situations.
When the victim begins to identify with the aggressor, the victim may begin to work with, rather than against, the aggressor, which can decrease the likelihood of violent behavior. The victim may be totally unaware that this emotional response is developing.
The imbalance of power between victim and aggressor contributes to the development of Stockholm syndrome. When a hostage or other victim is afraid the aggressor will harm them in some way, they may feel relief if the aggressor refrains from violence (or in cases of abuse, when the abuser stops harming the victim and apologizes for their behavior). The victim may view this as kindness or compassion on the part of the aggressor, which can lead to Stockholm syndrome—the positive feelings toward the aggressor.
What are examples of Stockholm syndrome?
In addition to the 1973 bank robbery hostage situation that gave Stockholm syndrome its name, there are many other notorious examples of this condition. Prominent cases of Stockholm syndrome include:
- Patty Hearst: The granddaughter of famed newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. She began to identify with her kidnappers and eventually helped them rob a bank. She used Stockholm syndrome as her legal defense when she was caught and charged with the crime, but she was sentenced to prison.
- Iran hostage crisis: In 1979, Iranian students invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 American hostages for more than a year. Upon release, many hostages reported being treated well, despite the fact that they had often been held in isolation and deprived of sleep.
- TWA flight 847 hijacking: In 1985, all except one out of dozens of passengers seemed to develop Stockholm syndrome after being held hostage by Lebanese Shiites for 14 days. Upon release, one of the hostages reported witnessing other hostages helping their captors and even playing soccer with their captors when the plane landed. One hostage hugged one of the captors goodbye upon release.
- Hostages in Lebanon: Despite living in very poor conditions for several years before finally being released in 1991, three hostages kidnapped by Islamist militants said after their release that their captors treated them well.
How do doctors diagnose Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome is not officially recognized as a psychiatric or medical diagnosis. However, a mental health professional may determine that a patient is experiencing Stockholm syndrome by observing the symptoms of identifying with, sympathizing with, and defending an abuser or captor. A mental health specialist can also identify and diagnose symptoms of related conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.
What are the treatments for Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome can be difficult to treat, as the bond between hostage and captor can be strong. And because Stockholm syndrome is not recognized as a psychological disorder or disease, there’s no standard treatment plan for the condition.
In the case of Stockholm syndrome in relationships, getting the abused person away from the abuser can sometimes break the psychological bond. However, this solution is often easier said than done. The abuser benefits by isolating the victim and not allowing an outsider’s perspective to influence the situation. The victim may even resist an outsider’s help in getting away from the abusive environment. But if the transition away from the abuser is successful, the victim can often see the situation for what it was and move forward, seeking treatment as needed.
Conditions such as depression or PTSD may be associated with Stockholm syndrome, and these conditions can be treated by a healthcare provider. Medication or psychotherapy with a mental health professional can help a victim cope with these and other related conditions.
What are the long-term effects of Stockholm syndrome?
Victims of abusive or hostage situations may feel a bond with their abuser or captor even after they have been freed from the situation. In some famous cases of Stockholm syndrome, the victims defended their captors from police, and some even physically shielded their captors from law enforcement.
If a victim cannot or will not escape the abusive situation and continues to be isolated from friends, family or law enforcement, the bond between victim and abuser may continue to grow.
What are the different types of Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome can develop in victims involved in several different types of situations. Stockholm syndrome example situations include:
- Kidnapping or hostage situations
- Domestic abuse, including physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Hostile employers, known as Corporate Stockholm Syndrome
- Sex trafficking
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