Stockholm Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

The Stockholm syndrome occurs when a person has unconsciously identified with their aggressor / captor. It is a psychological state where  the victim detained against his own will develops a complicity relationship with the person who has abducted her.

Stockholm Syndrome Symptoms

Most of the victims who have suffered kidnappings speak with contempt, hatred or indifference from their captors.

In fact, a study with more than 1,200 people in hostage-taking carried out by the FBI showed that 92% of the victims did not develop the Stockholm Syndrome  .

However, there is a part of them that shows a different reaction towards their captors.

Characteristics of the Stockholm Syndrome

When a person has been deprived of liberty and held against their will, remaining in conditions of isolation to stimulate and in the exclusive company  of their captors, for survival can develop an affective bond towards them.

It is about the set of psychological mechanisms, which allow forming an affective bond of dependence of the victims towards their captors, so  that they assume the ideas, motivations, beliefs or reasons that the kidnappers use to deprive them of freedom.

It should also be noted that the Stockholm Syndrome is a psychopathological phenomenon that lacks its own diagnostic entity.

Therefore, one aspect to consider is that it does not deserve, according to the criteria of many experts, the denomination of “syndrome”.

Never said phenomenon has been characterized as a clinical set of signs and symptoms under the same entity to be considered a psychopathological category  with differentiated diagnosis.

Therefore, this syndrome does not appear or has ever appeared in the main diagnostic systems used by professionals in clinical practice:

  • The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association.
  • The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) of the World Health Organization.

The manifestations of the Stockholm syndrome can be more a reaction and a determined behavior before a concrete situation and not so much a  psychopathological process as such.

The syndrome presents signs and symptoms but in spite of this, they are not grouped under the same diagnostic set or have an explanatory and descriptive model, so that their explanations are isolated hypotheses.

All of this is probably due to the fact that its nature is unknown and that, in addition, researchers and different authors have devoted little effort to  studying and researching it.

Many of them even come to doubt its existence and consider that it is rather a “myth”.

Likewise, many authors have an impact on its low incidence rate and when it happens only during kidnappings or captives, the possible number of cases  decreases.

For all these reasons, it is difficult to study these cases, which makes it difficult to observe them during the whole process.

Most of the cases that are attended, they do after having been released (obviously) and are treated by the psychiatrist and / or psychologist  specialized in clinical psychology and are usually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In this sense, many researchers argue that the Stockholm Syndrome can help explain the behaviors that have had survivors of  some dramatic situations such as:

  • Battered women (Domestic Stockholm syndrome)
  • Children abused or mistreated physically and emotionally
  • Victims of incest
  • Prisoners of war
  • Members of sects
  • Situations of criminal kidnapping
  • Prisoners in concentration camps
  • Control and intimidation relationships
  • Prostitutes

The psychological state that happens after kidnapping situations where the victim ends up developing an affective state towards the captor, is therefore called  “Stockholm Syndrome”.

It has also received other names such as “Survival Identification Syndrome”, occurring when the victim perceives that by not showing  aggressiveness or not having killed her she must be grateful to him.

History of the Stockholm Syndrome

In August of the year 1973, a robbery in a banking institution happened in the city of Stockholm. Several criminals armed with machine guns  entered the bank.

A robber named Jan-Erik Olsson went into the bank to commit a robbery. However, the police surrounded the building preventing him from fleeing. It was  then when he took several bank employees hostage for several days (around 130 hours).

The hostages were three women and one man, who remained tied with dynamite in a vault until they were rescued. During the  kidnapping they had been threatened and came to fear for their lives.

When they were released, in the interviews they showed that they were on the side of the kidnappers, coming to fear the agents who released them. They thought that even the captors were protecting them.

Some of the victims developed emotional bonds with the kidnapper during the days of their captivity, even arriving to fall in love with  him. They also criticized the Government of Sweden for not understanding what had led the thieves to do that.

They sympathized with the captor’s ideals and with the objectives that moved him to do that, one of them later arriving to participate in another  kidnapping that the captor organized.

Probably it is not the first case, but it is the first historical case that was taken as a model to name this phenomenon.

The Stockholm Syndrome was named for the first time by Nils Bejerot (1921-1988), who was a professor of Medicine specializing in addictive research  .

In addition, he held a position as psychiatry consultant for the police in Sweden in the bank robbery.

Symptoms of the Stockholm Syndrome

The victims behave in a characteristic and singular way. It is an individual and idiosyncratic reaction that can not be generalized.

However, his action responds to a defense mechanism on the part of the victim, so that he ends up identifying himself with his kidnapper.

The traumatic and stressful situation experienced places the victim in a passive-aggressive position vis-à-vis the captor, so that he acts defensively  from the instinct of survival.

We must bear in mind that the fact of losing freedom because another imposes it ends up positioning the victims in a situation of imbalance and  instability.

They are placed in a situation of uncertainty that causes anguish, anxiety and fear in the victim. It subjects them to their dependence and conditions their life in all  senses.

Since the only possible situations are to rebel or accept and rebellion can bring unpleasant consequences, the least bad option is that which  can lead the victim to the Stockholm Syndrome.

The reactions that are part of this syndrome are considered one of the multiple emotional responses that an individual can present as a result of the  vulnerability and helplessness produced during the captivity.

It is an unusual response but it must necessarily be known and understood, since it has often been misrepresented by calling it and considering it  as a disease.

When they are released, the impossibility of identifying themselves as victims in the face of what happened and feelings of understanding towards the captor shows the dissociation  proper to this phenomenon.

They usually feel grateful to their captors, for what they have lived during the captivity, for not behaving aggressively with them and they end up  being nice and nice to them.

By not behaving ‘cruelly’ towards the victims and the isolation to which they have been subjected, it makes them see the world through the eyes of the  captor and can even share common interests after spending time together. The victim ends up developing an emotional dependence on him.

It is usually something that worries the families of individuals who have gone through a captive situation and many wonder if some  feelings of gratitude towards the captor are part of said symptomatology and the individual is “sick”.

If during the captivity someone has had some gesture of help towards them they remember it especially because under those circumstances, kind gestures  are received with relief and gratitude.

Therefore, it is an unconscious defensive mechanism that the victim has to not be able to respond to the situation of aggression in which he finds  himself, thus defending himself from a situation that he can not “digest” and to avoid an emotional shock.

He begins to establish a link with the aggressor and identifies with him, understands him, has sympathy and shows affection and pleasure.

It should be clarified that it is something that the victim feels and perceives and believes is a reasonable and lawful way of thinking.

It is the people external to her who see the feelings or attitudes she shows irrational to understand and excuse the actions of the captors.

Other authors (such as Meluk) also point out that in some stories of liberated victims, gratitude was shown towards the kidnappers given that the  situation that made them live allowed them to grow as people.

It allowed them to modify their personality, their value system, even though they do not justify or defend the motivations that led the kidnappers to  take such actions.

It is important to emphasize that the cover-up that the victim can perform is not due to fear of reprisals, it is something more typical of the affective sphere  , of gratitude.

In short, although experts do not agree on the characteristic features, most agree that there are some characteristics that are  central:

1. The positive feelings of the victims towards their captors

2. The negative feelings of the victims towards authorities or the police

3. The situation should last at least a few days

4. There must be contact between victims and captors

5. The captors show some kindness or do not harm the victims

In addition, people with Stockholm Syndrome have other symptoms, similar to people diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder : sleep problems such  as insomnia, concentration difficulties, increased alertness, feeling of unreality, anhedonia.

Causes of the Stockholm syndrome

Different theorists and researchers have tried to shed light and explain what happens in these situations in which, paradoxically, there is a relationship between a victim and his captor. It appeals to affective and emotional keys that happen in a traumatic situation.

In medical science the syndrome is the set of symptoms and signs observed that have an unknown origin, here being one of the major  differences with the disease: the lack of knowledge of what the etiology is.

In this sense, the brain of the victim receives a signal of alert and threat that begins to spread and to cross the limbic system and the amygdala,  regulating the functions of defense.

The victim maintains the instinct of preservation in the face of deprivation of liberty, isolation stimulating and remaining subject to the wishes of an  outsider.

In this way, the possibility of ‘seducing’ or manipulating your captor may give you the advantage of being dismissed as a potential object of torture, maltreatment  or homicide.

Other authors consider that in the case of the victim, by treating the offender as an equal and not subordinating himself to him, through empathy and denying his  position, he manages to convey sympathy, so that in the case of having to get rid of the victim , the captor is sorry to do so.

For example, authors such as Dutton and Painter (1981) argue that the factors of disequilibrium of power and good-bad intermittency are what generate in  a battered woman the development of a traumatic bond that unites her to the aggressor.

In this sense, the uncertainty that is associated with repeated and intermittent violence can be a key element to develop the bond, but in  no way the only cause.

It is well known that triggers such as feelings or characteristic behaviors can occur under certain emotional states.

Some authors consider that there are people who have more vulnerability to develop it, especially the most insecure and emotionally  weaker people.

In this case, as a consequence of the situation experienced, the victim who has been kidnapped, based on the fear experienced, identifies with his captor.

There are different situations where the kidnappers carry out actions where they deprive other individuals, the victims, and subject them to a  period of captivity, for example.

It should be noted that the Stockholm Syndrome lacks models that describe or explain its etiology and conformation from a psychopathological perspective.

When the victim is released, he can present samples that show that he suffers from the syndrome, such as identifying himself highly with the captor, for example.

Among the few theories found, we can highlight the identifying elements proposed by Graham’s group at the University of Cincinnati  (1995), based on an evaluation scale of 49 items.

Cognitive distortions and coping strategies are suggested around this evaluation. From this, symptoms of this syndrome are detected,  for example, in young people whose romantic partners commit abuses against them.

All of this is framed within a vision where the situation leads the victim to present a “dissociative state” where he denies the violent and negative behavior  of the abductor developing an affective bond towards him.

However, it should be noted that although it may be valid for some processes that are involved in the situation, it is by no means a clear and explanatory hypothesis  about the origin and nature of the process.

Thus, tentatively, we can argue that the victim develops a cognitive mental model and an anchorage to the context that allows him to overcome this  situation, recover his balance and be able to protect himself from the situation he has experienced (his psychological integrity).

In this way, a cognitive modification is produced in the victim that helps him adapt.

In addition, to establish the bases of an explanatory etiological model, some conditions are established that are necessary for the Stockholm Syndrome to appear  :

1. The situation that triggers it requires a detained hostage (exceptionally it could occur in small groups of hostages).

2. It is necessary to isolate stimuli , where the victim is introduced in a minimal environment where the kidnapper is the emergency reference.

3. Ideological Corpus , understood as values ​​and cognitions covered by a concrete political, religious or social argument that bases the action  carried out by the kidnappers.

The more elaborate the kidnapper is, the more likely there is to be an influence on the hostage and the Stockholm Syndrome is encouraged  .

4. That there is contact between the kidnapper and the victim , so that the latter perceives the kidnapper’s motivation and the process by which he identifies with him can be opened  .

5. It depends on the resources available to the victim , given that the syndrome will not develop if it has well- established internal control references  or strategies for coping or solving appropriate problems.

6. In general, if violence occurs on the part of the abductor , the appearance of the Stockholm Syndrome will be less likely.

7. The victim, on the other hand, must perceive initial expectations that there is a riskto his life, which progressively decays as he advances to  a contact that he perceives to be more secure with the abductor.

According to different experts, it is necessary that the victim does not feel assaulted, violated or mistreated, because then a defensive barrier develops  that does not allow them to identify with the captors and accept their good part.

Also, under this framework a series of stages occur during the process. It is based on a situation of kidnapping and a model is established through which  the change or evolution of the psychological state of the victims takes place.

It is necessary to take into account the individual characteristics of the different people, and therefore not all of them will react in the same way nor will they be  affected by all the reactions or in the same order, presenting it as an orientation to construct an explanatory hypothesis.

Therefore, the general process can be divided into functional phases that roughly coincide with Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome model  .

Furthermore, it can not be ruled out that a weak personality is also found at the base of the victim’s behavior.

Therefore, due to the fear and threatening situation that he has experienced during a prolonged time during the kidnapping, this does not allow him to face it and he  does it in the described way.

In addition, the victim could rationalize what happened giving arguments to what happened and justifying the kidnapper, defending him, enhancing his qualities,  making assessments of social justice, and so on.

In short, to detect and diagnose the Stockholm Syndrome, two conditions are necessary:

1. That the person has unconsciously internalized a high identification in attitudes, behaviors and beliefs of the captors (almost as if they  were their own).

2. The initial expressions of gratitude and appreciation to the captors are extended in time, even when the person is already released and in  their daily routines and knows that the captivity has ended.

Evaluation and treatment of the Stockholm Syndrome

Victims of the Stockholm Syndrome require psychological and psychiatric assistance to be able to remember and rework the situation experienced, the  consequences that may have derived from that experience, as well as work with the different defense mechanisms that the person has put into  practice.

You have to keep in mind how memory works, which is selective and that your fingerprints change over time.

Sometimes, after being the victim released after a period of time, you may find it difficult to separate yourself from your captor.

It can take a long time until the person recovers from the consequences of the situation experienced.

Given that, as we have already mentioned, the Stockholm Syndrome is not a diagnostic category, we refer to a descriptive term and a  way of behaving when faced with a stressful and traumatic situation.

Many of the professionals who deal with this type of victims diagnose these patients from some disorders such as Acute Stress Disorder or  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when they are evaluated.

The treatment used is the same as that used for the treatment of PTSD, combining pharmacotherapy with psychotherapy.

Obviously, the treatment must adapt to the characteristics of the victim. If this presents insecurity and low self-esteem, work will be done to improve their  personal security, emotional dependence and work the reaction that presents and the beliefs and ideas that underlie it.

If symptoms of post-traumatic stress or depression are observed in the patient , this symptomatology should be worked on.

The recovery is good and the duration depends on different factors such as the time that was held against their will, their coping style  , the learning history or the nature of the situation lived.

Finally, it should be noted that this phenomenon is quite interesting from the psychological point of view, so that the behaviors that underlie  this “syndrome” should be studied and investigated in more detail by those who study victimology, in order to throw a little more  light in everything that surrounds it.

Also Read: Dual Pathology: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

In addition, from the social point of view it is also important because of the collateral damages that it can bring to society. The fact of simulating forgetfulness, not  recognizing the aggressors (voice, dress, physiognomy …) can make investigations difficult.