What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm Syndrome (also known as "terror bonding" and "traumatic bonding") is a paradoxical psychological phenomenon in which hostages feel empathy and positive feelings toward their captors - sometimes, even defending their captors. Over time, a hostage victim may come to believe that the abuse he or she has endured was done out of kindness or love on the part of the captor.

These feelings may appear to be irrational by others, as the hostage had endured much danger and risk during his or her captivity.

Approximately one fourth of all hostage victims display Stockholm Syndrome after a period of captivity.

Stockholm Syndrome is a form of traumatic bonding, in which strong emotional ties develop between two people when one person intermittently beats, harasses, abuses or intimidates the other person.

Stockholm Syndrome is not the subject of ridicule - it can happen to anyone - it is the ultimate in survival mechanisms.

What Causes Stockholm Syndrome?

The precise reason that some people develop Stockholm Syndrome while others do not is complex.

People who develop Stockholm Syndrome have come to identify with (and possibly care about) their captors in an unconscious and desperate act of self-preservation. Stockholm Syndrome most frequently develops during traumatic situations like kidnappings, domestic abuse, or hostage situations, and the effects of this disorder don't stop once the person has been released.

Most victims who have Stockholm Syndrome continue to care for - and defend - their captors long after they've escaped captivity.

But why?

Self-preservation. A hostage feels as though his or her captor is doing him or her a favor by allowing them to remain alive. Many prisoners are treated in a sympathetic manner by their captors, allowing them to see their captors in a positive manner. After all, aren't captors supposed to be cruel?

Isolation from the outside world allows the hostage to see the world from the eyes of the captor - the prisoner begins to empathize, sympathize with his or her captor. It is soon the only world the prisoner knows. The captor and prisoner may even begin to share common interests after being together awhile.

The prisoner develops a dependence upon his or her abductor - after all, the captor has allowed the prisoner to live, even treated them kindly (in most cases, the kindness is merely perceived).

Who Gets Stockholm Syndrome?

While most people associate Stockholm Syndrome with being caused by a captor/prisoner relationship, any number of people may develop Stockholm Syndrome. Included in this are:

Where Did The Term "Stockholm Syndrome" Come From?

Let's take a trip into the way-back machine, shall we?

Back in 1972, two men entered a bank in Stockholm Sweden, intending to rob the bank. After the police were called, the police burst into the bank, the two men shot them, thus beginning a hostage situation.

For six long days, these robbers held four people who had been in the bank hostage, at gunpoint, sometimes strapping explosives on the hostage, other times, putting nooses around the hostages neck.

By the time the police were able to attempt to rescue the hostages, the hostages fought the police off in defense of their captors, blaming the situation entirely upon the police. One of the hostages, once free, set up a fund to cover his captors legal fees.

The term "Stockholm Syndrome" was born, finally capturing the bizarre essence of the captor/prisoner phenomenon.

What Are The Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome?

The features of Stockholm Syndrome include some of the following:

  • Positive feelings by the prisoner toward the captor.
  • Negative feelings by the prisoner toward his or her family, friends or authorities attempting any rescue.
  • Support for the captor's reasons and behaviors.
  • Positive feelings on the end of the captor toward the victim.
  • Support from the victim to help the captor.
  • Inability by the victim to execute behaviors that can lead to release or detachment from the captor.

In order for Stockholm Syndrome to occur, there must be at least three of the following traits:

  • There must be a sorely uneven balance of power in which the captor must dictate what the captive can and cannot do.
  • There must be the threat of death or physical injury to the captive from the captor.
  • There must be a self-preservation instinct within the prisoner.
  • The prisoner believes (perhaps falsely) that he or she cannot escape.
  • Survival is dependent upon following the rules of the captor.
  • The prisoner must be isolated from others who are not being held captive.

How Does Stockholm Syndrome Develop?

Stockholm Syndrome is one of the most challenging psychological behaviors to understand - unless you've been there. If you've never been held captive under threat of death for a period of time, it's almost impossible to understand how someone could identify with those who have hurt and imprisoned them.

It does happen. Here's how (in the most basic of examples):

1) After a very emotionally traumatic and stressful situation, a person finds his or herself held captive by a captor who threatens to kill or hurt if he or she does not follow the rules. Abuse - physical, sexual or emotional - occurs. The prisoner has difficulty thinking straight - escape is not an option, right? If he or she tries to escape, his or her family may be killed.

The prisoner believes that the only way for everyone to survive is to be obedient to the captor.

2) Time marches on. The captor is under stress, and simple obedience may not guarantee safety for the captor and his or her family. The fluctuating moods of the captor lead to unexpected violence and abuse. The prisoner then learns what triggers may or may not set off his or her captor as a means of survival.

This, however, means that the prisoner learns more about his or her captor.

3) The prisoner begins to see the captor as being kind - even if it's simply because he or she hasn't been killed yet. In this way, the captor goes from a Bad Guy (or Girl) to The Savior.

The slightest act of kindness (a decrease in abuse, for example, or some extra food) feels like a a sign of friendship that the prisoner clings to.

4) Over time, the captor begins to appear less and less threatening and more of a means of survival than harm. In order to survive psychologically and to ease the crisis situation, the prisoner begins to believe that the captor is actually a friend, that he or she will not kill the prisoner, and that they can work together to get out of the mess they're in. Rather than see the people on the outside trying to rescue the prisoner as the saviors, instead, they appear to be enemies - they will hurt the captor, who is now his or her "friend" and "protector."

The captor has gone from "captor" to "friend" in a process of self-delusion and self-preservation on the part of the prisoner.

5) This bonding leads to incredibly conflicted feelings within the prisoner or abuser. The victim may begin to feel concern for the captor, at times, ignoring his or her own needs.

The victim is conflicted about his or her feelings toward his or her captor.

6) When the traumatic event is over, the victim undergoes an incredibly hard transition. He or she must learn NOT to dissociate from his or her feelings or focus upon the abuser, but must face reality and begin to rebuild his or her life.

The emotional shackles of Stockholm Syndrome last a lifetime.

How Is Stockholm Syndrome Treated?

Once a prisoner is returned to society after a period of time, he or she may find it absolutely challenging and heartbreaking to be separated from his or her captor. Simply because the prisoner no longer has shackles does not mean that he or she doesn't feel tied to his or her captor.

The best treatment for Stockholm Syndrome is intense therapy as well as the love and support from the prisoner's family. It may take many years for the former prisoner to recover from Stockholm Syndrome - these shackles are not easily undone.

How To Support A Loved One Who Has Stockholm Syndrome:

Every situation in which a person develops Stockholm Syndrome is different. As noted, many of the people who develop Stockholm Syndrome are not victims of a hostage situation, but people who have lived through intense abuse.

Here are some tips for supporting someone who has Stockholm Syndrome:

Remember that your loved one was once faced with a grueling choice: the family or the situation. As there was a threat to the family, the person has learned to choose the attacker over hurting the family.

The more you pressure a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, the harder they will resist - especially in cases of domestic violence or abuse.

Remain in contact with your loved one throughout his or her abusive relationship or recovery. Keep the channels of communication as open as possible without forcing it.

Remind your loved one that you fully support his or her decisions and that you love him or her no matter what.

If your loved one hints at the relationship with an abuser, remember that he or she may not be quite ready for help - that he or she is simply exploring options.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Fear

Guilt

Shame

Psychological Manipulation

Abuse

Domestic Abuse

Child Abuse

Incest

Additional Stockholm Syndrome Resources:

A Brief History of Stockholm Syndrome - Time Magazine

Loving An Abuser - an article about domestic violence and Stockholm Syndrome.