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Understanding Stockholm syndrome

Understanding Stockholm syndrome


Stockholm syndrome refers to symptoms that may occur in a person who is in a hostage situation or otherwise held prisoner. Typically, these feelings can be described as sympathy toward captors or the development of a bond with the captor or captors. It is not a recognized psychological diagnosis, but rather, an attempt to explain the symptoms appearing in some individuals who were held captive. A person who experiences Stockholm syndrome comes to bond with the captor and may experience feelings of love, empathy, or a desire to protect the captor. The hostage may also often develop negative feelings toward the police or other parties who are attempting rescue.

Studies of incidents involving hostages indicate Stockholm syndrome appears to be most likely to occur when individuals are held captive for several days and have close contact with their captors.

These individuals are generally not harmed by their captors and may even be treated with kindness.

From a psychological perspective, this phenomenon can be understood as a survival mechanism. In fact, some experts may even encourage those in a hostage situation to act as if they are experiencing Stockholm syndrome in order to improve their chances of survival, as a connection with the perpetrator can potentially make the situation more bearable for the victim and may make the captors more inclined to meet the captive’s basic needs.


It may be easier to understand Stockholm syndrome as an actual survival strategy for victims. This is because it seems to increase victims’ chances of survival and is believed to be a necessary tactic for defending psychologically and physically against experiencing an abusive, toxic, and controlling relationship. Stockholm syndrome is often found in toxic relationships where a power differential exists, such as between a parent and child or spiritual leader and congregant. Some signs of Stockholm syndrome include:

  • Positive regard towards perpetrators of abuse or captors.
  • Failure to cooperate with police and other government authorities when it comes to holding perpetrators of abuse or kidnapping accountable.
  • Little or no effort to escape.
  • Belief in the goodness of the perpetrators or kidnappers.
  • Appeasement of captors. This is a manipulative strategy for maintaining one’s safety. As victims get rewarded — perhaps with less abuse or even with life itself — their appeasing behaviours are reinforced.
  • Learned helplessness. This can be akin to “if you can’t beat them, join them.” As the victims fail to escape the abuse or captivity, they may start giving up and soon realize it’s just easier for everyone if they give over all their power to their captors.
  • Feelings of pity toward the abusers, believing they are actually victims themselves. Because of this, victims may go on a crusade or mission to “save” their abuser.
  • Unwillingness to learn to detach from their perpetrators and heal. In essence, victims may tend to be less loyal to themselves than to their abuser.

    Symptoms of Stockholm syndrome

While there is no official list of symptoms for Stockholm syndrome, there are common traits that happen to those who have experienced it. Some of those traits include:

  • After experiencing something terrifying and out of the blue, the victim experiences a type of infantilization, meaning they don’t eat, speak, or use the restroom without permission.
  • Small acts of kindness, such as being given food, gives way to large amounts of gratitude towards the captor.
  • Denial that the captor is the person who put the victim in that situation. Rather, thinking that the person is going to be the person to let them live.

After escaping the abuse or hostage situation, many people experience negative cognitive, social, emotional, and physical effects, such as:

  • Recurring flashbacks to the bad situation.
  • Refusal to accept reality and what actually happened while victim.
  • Blurred memory and inability to remember certain aspects of the event realistically.
  • Complete confusion.
  • Feeling helplessness, aggression, depression, guilt, or aggression
  • Not feeling anything
  • Developing a dependence on the captor and unsure of how to survive without their help.
  • Development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Cautious
  • Refusal to eat, sleep, or go outdoors
  • Increased effect of pre-existing conditions

Stockholm syndrome in relationships

In physically and emotionally abusive relationships, like domestic violence, it’s not uncommon for the person to stay with their abusive partner. This is known as battered woman syndrome. The reason they stay is because, they feel a sort of dependency on their partner and feel they cannot function without them. Often, they try to justify the actions of the abusive partner with things along the lines of, “he’s/she’s not a bad person, he/she just got angry.”

One study found that survivors of childhood abuse show telltale signs of Stockholm syndrome, too. It’s not uncommon that children, whether emotionally or physically abused, can feel protective toward the abusive parent/figure and doesn’t speak about the abuse, or lies about it in order to protect the abuser.

Treatments of Stockholm syndrome

Treatment for Stockholm syndrome typically involves psychological counseling or psychiatric counseling with the hope that the patient realizes that their actions and feelings come from human survival techniques. The counseling also involves helping the victim reinstate normalcy into their lives and learn how to decrease survival-driven behaviours.