Stockholm Syndrome: A complete guide to this curious syndrome
Everyone has heard of those stories of women who don’t leave their abusive husband because they love them or the girls who get kidnapped and don’t run away… But how is that possible? Have they gone crazy? No, not at all it’s due to Stockholm syndrome. But what is Stockholm syndrome and what are its symptoms, causes, and treatments? How does it look in a relationships and how does it affect the brain? Find out everything about Stockholm syndrome here!
What is Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome, also known as terror-bonding and trauma-bonding, is a condition that causes hostages and abuse victims to develop a psychological alliance with their captor or abuser while in captivity or while being abused. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as:
“The psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.”
These intimate and kind feelings are formed between the two parties due to the amount of time spent together. Stockholm syndrome has been found in people who have experienced political oppression discrimination, terror, human trafficking, kidnapping, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse. These circumstances can result in a way that allows the victim to respond in a supportive and compliant way as a tactic for survival- whether they are aware of it or not. The feelings that the victims feel towards their captors are the opposite of what the onlookers feel towards the captors. That is to say, the victim might feel content and safe while the onlooker would feel disdain and fear.
Stockholm syndrome is considered to be a contested illness because there are those who disagree that it’s a real condition. However, roughly 8% of victims show symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome according to the FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System.
Stockholm syndrome was born by way of explanation. The term was coined by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot in the 1970’s after the famous bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Four hostages were taken and held in the bank for six days. They defended their captors during the hostage situation and after being released. The hostages wouldn’t agree to testify in court against their captors, either. They even went so far as to try to help the criminals, their captors, raise money for legal defense afterword. While hostage, one woman spoke to the Swedish Prime Minister and said she trusted her captors but feared she would die in a police assault on the building.
Stockholm syndrome is a coping mechanism that arises from the fact that the victim’s need to survive is stronger than their “want” to hate their captor. The defense mechanism of the ego under stress is the “positive” emotional bond between the victim and the captor. Due to the fact that the victim wouldn’t want their feelings to be seen as fake, they begin to believe that their positive feelings towards the captor are true. It’s believed that even partial activation of the psychological trait of capture-bonding is why there exist phenomena such as fraternity hazing, paraphilia (sadism, bondage, masochism), and battered woman syndrome. It’s only natural to look for normality, especially when spending lots of time with the captor. Adapting yourself is the only way to survive sometimes.
Lima syndrome vs Stockholm Syndrome
Stockholm syndrome is a two-sided coin and doesn’t always just apply to the hostages and victims- it can also apply to the captors. Captors feel empathy for their victims.
According to an article in the 2007 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, crisis negotiators are encouraged to develop the notion that the captor can have positive feelings towards the victims, too. It’s supposed to improve hostage survival.
In the 1996 abduction of hundreds of hostages in the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, most hostages were released within hours, including those most valuable, due to the captor’s sympathy towards the hostages.
In an interview with the captor in the original Stockholm bank robbery, Jan-Erik Olsson said, “It was the hostages’ fault. They did everything I told them to. If they hadn’t, I might not be here now. Why didn’t any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other.”
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)
- Anxious and irritable
- Refusal to eat, sleep, or go outdoors
- Increased effect of pre-existing conditions
Causes of Stockholm syndrome
In theory, there are a few components that together cause Stockholm syndrome:
- No prior relationship between the captor and the victim.
- A victim develops positive feelings toward the captor.
- Complete isolation from anyone but the captor.
- A victim’s belief that their captor has humanity and mistaking their captor’s kindness for genuine care.
- Believing that the captor can kill the victim at any time.
- A refusal on behalf of the victim to cooperate with police and other authorities (if in a hostage situation).
The psychologists who have studied Stockholm syndrome believe that it begins when a bond is created between the captor and victim by initially and deliberately threatening the victim’s life, then choosing not to kill them. The relief that the victim feels is then switched into feelings of gratitude and arrogance toward the captor.
Diagnosis of Stockholm syndrome
There is no official diagnosis of Stockholm syndrome since it’s controversial and the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t include it in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)– the measure used to diagnosis an array of disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and paraphilia. There is also no criteria to diagnosis it in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) either.
Stockholm syndrome and the brain
Development of Stockholm syndrome has more to do with a past of trauma than with personality type. People who fall under Stockholm syndrome have their initial trauma deep-rooted in their brains. This deep trauma causes them to seek relationships that fit into the scheme of the past trauma. This also happens in the cliche situation of a woman who had an abusive father seeking (subconsciously) a partner who is also abusive. However, because it’s a means of survival, it truly can happen to anyone.
Stockholm syndrome takes place in our limbic system, deep in our subconscious. Our limbic system houses different parts of the brain such as the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, thalamus, cingulate gyrus, and the basal ganglia. The hippocampus is essential in forming new memories of past experiences. That’s why some people don’t remember or think differently about, what happened due to psychogenic amnesia after they’ve been kidnapped or abused.
The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain. It’s what makes you feel kindness towards the abuser/captor. Together with the amygdala, the hypothalamus and thalamus both play a role in the changes that are made with emotional reactivity. The cingulate gyrus takes sights and smells and associates them with pleasant memories- this helps regulate aggressive behavior and it also is responsible for the emotional reaction to pain. The basal ganglia help coordinate rule-based environments, organize our motor behavior, and it helps us learn habits.
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 behaviors.
Criticism of Stockholm syndrome
With no official diagnosis manual, many people criticize Stockholm syndrome. The FBI recognizes the term. Some say it doesn’t exist. Some claim that it’s used too widely. Many kidnapping victims who are labeled as having Stockholm syndrome claim otherwise and they may be right. While there is a lot of media coverage of the syndrome, there isn’t much research on the subject. The little research available disagrees with other research done in several areas.
Examples of Stockholm syndrome
Jaycee Lee Dugard
Kidnapped at age 11 in 1991, Jaycee Lee Dugard lived as a captive for 18 years in a tent behind the house of her captors, Phillip and Nancy Garrido, in Lake Tahoe, California. While in captivity, she gave birth to two kids, ages 11 and 15 when she reappeared. Throughout her captivity, Jaycee had opportunities to run away but didn’t because she had bonded with the captors as a means to survive.
Granddaughter to the great publisher William Hearst, Patty Hearst was kidnapped at age 19 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). After two months in captivity, she was caught on camera participating in a bank robbery on behalf of the SLA in San Francisco. Afterward, she was caught on camera using her SLA pseudonym, Tania, voicing her support to SLA. Once arrested with the rest of the SLA group, Patty denounced the group. Her lawyer during her trial claimed that Patty had suffered from Stockholm syndrome as a form of survival. According to the court’s testimony, Patty was kept in a small, dark closet where she was blindfolded, bound, and abused while in captivity.
In the 1940’s at age 25, Mary McElroy was captured by four men at gunpoint and held in an abandoned farmhouse, chained to a wall, for 34 hours. When her $300,000 ransom was paid and she was released, McElroy defended her kidnappers by saying that they were only businessmen. While her kidnappers were in jail and awaited death row, she continued to visit them. Eventually, she committed suicide.
Vanished at age 10 while on the way to school in 1998, Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped and help in a dark room under the garage of her captor, Wolfgang Priklopil. For eight years, she was physically and sexually abused. She managed to escape and her captor committed suicide. While some claim that Natascha suffered from Stockholm syndrome, she claims it’s offensive to even suggest such an idea.
Tips to avoid Stockholm syndrome
If a family member is suffering from Stockholm syndrome, the best thing to do is to suggest therapy and possibly medication. It’s essential not to become angry with them. Remind yourself that they are how they are because they were trying to keep themselves alive.
Sadly, one cannot change their genetic makeup and be 100% sure they can prevent Stockholm syndrome in the event of abuse or a kidnapping. However, there are some preventive measures one can try.
- Don’t forget reality. Regardless if the abuser says they love you or your kidnapper gives you good meals, remember that they still hit you or that you’re still being kept against your will.
- Don’t trust them.
- Think about your escape. Fantasize about it even if it doesn’t seem possible. To achieve, you must conceive and believe.
- Stay emotionally distant. While maybe not possible in abusive relationships, in kidnappings it’s essential to remain emotionally distant.
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Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.