What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published May 20, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Loving the Abuser. Victimized woman in love with the person who hurts her, also called the Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome is a condition in which people develop positive emotions and associations with someone who is keeping them captive.

This has been suggested to mostly happen in situations where there is a hostage and a captor and commonly linked to kidnappings.

In some instances, the victims form bonds with their captors and may even become sympathetic towards them, the opposite of feeling fear, terror, and disdain, which one may expect in these situations. 

The origin of the term Stockholm Syndrome arose in the aftermath of a well-documented robbery which took place in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973.

Four hostages were kept captive in the bank whilst their captors had a six-day stand-off with the police. After their release, the authorities found that the hostages had developed strong emotional bonds towards their captors, and even refused to separate from them.

The hostages reported that their captors treated them kindly and did not harm them. They defended the captors and refused to testify against them in court. 

After this, criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot who investigated the event named this phenomena Stockholm Syndrome.

Subsequently, this term has been used to label the condition that occurs when hostages develop an emotional or psychological connection to the people who held them in captivity. 

The development of Stockholm Syndrome is thought to be a coping mechanism to survive in life-threatening situations.

It is believed to be a psychological response which can develop of the course of days, weeks, months, or even years of captivity or abuse. This condition does not seem to happen in every captive situation, and it is unclear why this does occur at all.

Stockholm Syndrome is believed to be rare, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimating that fewer than 8% of kidnapping victims show evidence of Stockholm Syndrome.

Despite becoming well-known, Stockholm Syndrome is not considered a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) with many researchers denying that the condition exists at all.

Many may attribute the feelings of Stockholm Syndrome to other conditions or believe this phenomenon is merely an aspect of emotional abuse or trauma bonding. 

Why do you get Stockholm Syndrome?

It is not entirely clear why some people may develop Stockholm Syndrome.

It is thought to be a survival mechanism in the way that a person may create bonds with their captor as a method of coping with the extreme and scary situation they are in. 

There are believed to be some key factors which may be necessary to increase the likelihood that someone will develop Stockholm Syndrome:

  • Being in an emotionally charged situation for an extended period of time.

  • Being in a shared space with the captor, with the space having poor conditions e.g., a lack of food or being physically uncomfortable.

  • The hostage is dependant on the captor for their basic needs such as accessing food and water. 

  • The hostage has not been dehumanized by the captor.

  • The situation lasts for several days or longer.

  • The captor and the hostage have meaningful interactions which provide opportunities to bond with one another.

  • The captor shows some kindness towards the hostage or refrains from harming them.

  • A reliance on the captor to survive the emotionally charged situation. 

Individuals in these kinds of situations may begin to have confusing feelings towards their captor as a result of the above factors.

A kidnapped person often feelings threatened by their captor, but they are also highly reliant on them for survival. They may have feelings of sympathy, empathy, or even love towards their captor, as well as a desire to protect them. 

There is evidence that people who are in traumatic situations together are likely to form strong bonds with each other.

This may be a possible cause for why this happens in hostage-captor relationships, meaning the strong bond in the traumatic situation may be misplaced onto captor. 

If the captor shows kindness in any way, this may be misinterpreted as the person being a generally kind person, with the hostage clinging onto this hope as a coping mechanism.

Even if the captor is unkind most of the time but they show kindness once, or if there is a lack of abuse in a situation where they would usually show abuse, this can be misinterpreted as kindness or affection.

This shows ties with trauma bonds, which are emotional attachments that develop in a relationship characterized by abuse.

The victims in both the relationship and hostage situation may be ‘waiting out’ the bad behaviours for the ‘crumbs’ of good behaviours.

Intermittent good/bad behaviour from the hostage or abuser may create trauma bonds. Some believe that Stockholm Syndrome is indistinguishable from trauma bonds in this way.

Impact of Stockholm Syndrome on mental health 

Although Stockholm Syndrome is not listed as a formal mental health diagnosis, people who experience this syndrome seem to have some common symptoms, including:

  • Positive feelings towards the captor.

  • Support of the captor’s behaviour and the reasoning behind it.

  • The victim begins to perceive their captor’s humanity and believe they share the same goals and values.

  • They make little to no effort to escape.

  • A belief in the goodness of the captors.

  • As the victims get rewarded, perhaps with less abuse, or with life itself, the captor’s appeasing behaviours are reinforced.

  • Feelings of pity towards the captors, even believing that the captors are the victims themselves. 

  • They may have feelings of wanting to ‘save’ their abuser.

Aside from having an attachment or bond with their captor, the victims may also develop different feelings towards outsiders of the situation. For instance, they may:

  • Be unwilling to engage in any behaviours that could assist in their release.

  • Have negative feelings towards their friends or family who may try to rescue them.

  • Develop negative feelings towards the police, authority figures, or anyone who might be trying to help them get away from their captor.

  • Refuse to cooperate against their captor, such as during the subsequent investigation or during legal trials. 

  • Refuse to leave their captors even when given opportunity to escape.

  • Believe that the police and other authorities do not have their best interests at heart. 

Even after being released from captivity, the person with Stockholm Syndrome may continue to have positive feelings towards their captor and may report some of the following symptoms:

  • Confusion

  • Guilt

  • Denial

  • Social withdrawal

  • Chronic feelings of tension

  • Anxiety 

  • Depression 

  • Feeling empty or hopeless

  • Excessive dependence 

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities

  • Embarrassment about their emotions towards the captor

  • Being unwilling to learn to detach from their captor and heal

  • Being less loyal to themselves than to their captor

People with Stockholm Syndrome may often report symptoms which are similar to those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as:

  • Being easily startled

  • Feelings of distrust

  • Feelings of unreality

  • Flashbacks

  • Irritability

  • Nightmares

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Insomnia 

Whilst not everyone who experiences feelings of Stockholm Syndrome will have all the symptoms, or even most of them, they may experience some to varying degrees.

Since the existence of Stockholm Syndrome itself is questionable, many may interpret this phenomenon in different ways and have their own ideas about what it is.

There have been a few famous, historical cases in which researchers have believed were examples of someone having Stockholm Syndrome.

These examples appear to show that these individuals may have had some level of positive feelings towards their captors. Whether these are actually examples of Stockholm Syndrome is up for debate.

There are several reasons why someone may find some connection with a captor. It could be that spending an extended amount of time with any person can result in some positive feelings being established, without this being Stockholm Syndrome.

The people who were kidnapped may have also genuinely shared some of the same views or ideals as their captors. It is easy to use black and white thinking when looking at kidnappers in the sense that they are usually seen as having all bad qualities.

However, people are more complex than this, and its possible that over time, those who were kidnapped came to see the good qualities in their captors.

So, whilst they may still believe their captors needed to be punished, it is possible for the kidnapped to feel sympathy for their captor or mourn when they have passed away. Many of the famous cases of what are considered examples of Stockholm Syndrome are of female victims.

It is likely this may be due to females being more likely to be a victim of kidnapping, or it is possible that people may be quick to assume a female showing any signs of compassion towards their captor has Stockholm Syndrome.

Mary McElroy

In 1933, four mean held 25-year-old Mary McElroy at gunpoint, chained her to walls in an abandoned farmhouse and demanded a ransom from her family.

When she was released, she had reportedly struggled to name her captors in their trial and had publicly expressed sympathy for them. whilst she agreed that her captors should receive punishment, she still visited them whilst they were in prison.

Patty Hearst

One of the most famous examples of what was believed to be Stockholm Syndrome, Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

During her captivity, Hearst was reported to have renounced her family, adopted a new name, and even joined her captors in robbing banks.

She was later arrested and claimed she had Stockholm Syndrome as a defence in her trial.

Natascha Kampusch

In 1998, when 10 years old at the time, Kampusch was kidnapped and kept captive in an underground, dark, insulated room. She was held captive by her kidnapper for more than 8 years.

During this time, she was reportedly physically abused by her captor, but he had also shown her kindness.

When she eventually escaped and her captor had committed suicide, it was reported that she ‘wept inconsolably’. Kampusch denied that she had Stockholm Syndrome and suggested the relationship with her kidnapper was complex.

She said, ‘I find it very natural that you would adapt yourself to identify with your kidnapper, especially if you spend a great deal of time with that person’.

Can Stockholm Syndrome be applied to other situations?

Whilst Stockholm Syndrome is usually associated with a hostage or kidnapping situation, it could be applied to several other types of circumstances or relationships. 

Abusive relationships

It is thought that those in abusive relationships, especially those with parents or romantic partners, may be more likely to develop Stockholm Syndrome.

Abuse can be very confusing for children since the abusive parent may often threaten or physical harm their child, but they may also show kindness which can be interpreted as love or affection.

An emotional bond may grow between the child and their abusive parent so much so, that this bond can protect the abuser for a long time. 

Research shows that abused individuals may develop emotional attachments to their abuser, meaning that the abuse, whether physical, emotional, or sexual, can last for years (Cantor & Price, 2007). Over time, the abused person may develop positive feelings or sympathy for the person.

It has been found in abusive romantic relationships, the abused person may be reluctant to press charges and may even attempt to stop the police from arresting their partner, even after a violent assault.

After the relationship ends, victims of domestic abuse may often make statements about still loving their abuser or make excuses for their behaviour. This could be considered a form of Stockholm Syndrome to many and can often be used interchangeably with trauma bonds.

A trauma bond is when someone has a loyalty to a person who has continually abused or harmed them, even feeling tied to the person after the relationship ends.

Whilst those in abusive romantic relationships do not have to be physically held captive to have these feelings, such is the case with hostage-captor situations, it is argued that they are being held captive in an emotional sense.

However, trauma bonds are thought to be different to Stockholm Syndrome since with trauma bonds, it is likely the person entered the relationship and formed a close attachment to them before abusive behaviour began.

Whereas to be considered Stockholm Syndrome, it can be argued that the person needs to be unwillingly taken and the captor is usually always a stranger. 

Sex trafficking 

A study looked into establishing whether there was an association between Stockholm Syndrome and sex trafficking (Karan & Hansen, 2018).

The researchers reviewed personal accounts from female sex workers living in India. The narratives included in the study describe several conditions that have association with Stockholm Syndrome, including:

  • Perceived threats to physical and psychological survival.

  • Perceived kindness from the trafficker or a client

  • Isolation from the outside world.

  • Perceived inability to escape.

  • Some of the women expressed that at one time, they hoped to start a family with their trafficker or a client. 

Sports coaching

In what may be an unlikely situation, a 2018 study demonstrated that Stockholm Syndrome can be found in sports (Baschand & Djak, 2018).

The researchers asserted that abusive sports coaches can victimize young athletes in a way that can crease Stockholm Syndrome.

The athletes may put up with the emotional abuse and subject themselves to painful workouts or extreme conditions by convincing themselves that their coach wants what is best for them.

The athletes may even sympathize with the hard work the coach has put in or excuse the mistreatment they have experienced through convincing themselves that the abuse is good training. 

Treatment

Since Stockholm Syndrome is not a recognizable psychological disorder and does not have a standardized definition, there are no official treatments recommended for it.

People are thought to experience traits of Stockholm Syndrome after a traumatic event such as being held hostage or being the victim of an abusive relationship.

Getting back into normal life after coming away from the traumatic event can be exceedingly difficult for someone. It may be hard for the victims to talk about their experiences as it can re-traumatize them. 

Many individuals may find that they have associated conditions following the traumatic event, such as the development of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Therefore, it may be beneficial for them to get the right treatment to help these conditions. 

Therapy is a useful treatment for the recovery of these conditions. This can include the use of psychotherapy to address the specific symptoms that may appear after the traumatic event such as nightmares or flashbacks.

Therapy can help to teach individuals healthy ways to cope with their trauma, help them process the way that they feel, and discuss any unhelpful thinking patterns that may emerge as a result of the event.

Through treatment, the individual may grow to recognize that sympathizing with their captor was a survival skill and that their thoughts about the captor do not serve them now they are safe.

Therapy can also help the person to recognize positive emotions that can help them to understand that what happened to them was not their fault. 

How to help someone who may be experiencing Stockholm Syndrome

As a loved one of someone who may have gone through a traumatic event and may be displaying traits of Stockholm Syndrome, there are some ways to support the individual through their emotions:

  • Listen without judgement – as the victim is considering everything that has happened to them and they are trying to process their experiences, listen and use reflection to show your concern and validation. 

  • Avoid polarization – when listening to the victim, it may be unhelpful to try to convince them of the villainous traits of their abuser. This can cause the victim to polarize and defend their captor. They may also not want to share their experiences with you. 

  • Validate their truth – being the victim of a manipulative relationship can cause cognitive dissonance. This means that the victim’s intuition has been damaged and they may be confused about their reality. Helping them by validating their truth and encouraging them to trust themselves can be beneficial for them.

  • Don’t give advice unless they ask for it – the victim should feel empowered to make their own decisions. If they ask you for advice then you can give it, but this may be something that they need to work through and make decisions for on their own. 

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, May 20). What Is Stockholm Syndrome? Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/Stockholm-syndrome.html

Sources

Bachand, C., & Djak, N. (2018). Stockholm syndrome in athletics: A Paradox. Children Australia, 43(3), 175-180. 

Cantor, C., & Price, J. (2007). Traumatic entrapment, appeasement and complex post-traumatic stress disorder: evolutionary perspectives of hostage reactions, domestic abuse and the Stockholm syndrome. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 41(5), 377-384. 

Eske, J. (2020, October 1). What is Stockholm syndrome? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/stockholm-syndrome 

Holland, K. (2019, November 11). What is Stockholm Syndrome and Who Does it Affect? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/stockholm-syndrome

Karan, A., & Hansen, N. (2018). Does the Stockholm Syndrome affect female sex workers? The case for a “Sonagachi Syndrome”. BMC international health and human rights, 18(1), 1-3.

Morin, A. (2020, November 9). What Is Stockholm Syndrome? Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/stockholm-syndrome-5074944#toc-symptoms 

Namnyak, M., Tufton, N., Szekely, R., Toal, M., Worboys, S., & Sampson, E. L. (2008). ‘Stockholm syndrome’: psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?. 7(1), 4-11. 

Stines, S. (2018, September 26). Why Stockholm Syndrome Happens and How to Help. Good Therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/why-stockholm-syndrome-happens-and-how-to-help-0926184 

WebMD Editorial Contributors. (2021, April 13). What Is Stockholm Syndrome? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-stockholm-syndrome