What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

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Stockholm syndrome refers to a phenomenon where a person who is in a captive or abusive situation begins to exhibit feelings of loyalty, trust, and even love toward their captor or abuser. The term comes from a situation that occurred in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973, where a woman who was being held hostage in a bank robbery became bonded with her captor and even broke off her engagement to her fiancé to enter a long-term relationship with her captor. Nils Bejerot, a psychiatrist from Sweden, is credited with coining the term.

Stockholm syndrome isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, but is used to describe a rare, but notable behavioral pattern seen in certain hostage situations and abusive relationships. Experts aren’t sure what causes it, but it’s likely triggered by the survival instinct. When a captor threatens a captive’s life but chooses not to kill them, the captive’s relief at surviving is transposed into a feeling of gratitude greater than hate for their captor.

Stockholm syndrome symptoms include bonding with your captor, and refusing liberation from the hostage situation. Because Stockholm syndrome isn’t a psychiatric condition, there are no known treatments. However, the phenomenon has been linked to post-traumatic-stress syndrome (PTSD), so management often involves PTSD treatment.

Stockholm Syndrome Symptoms

Stockholm syndrome is most associated with hostage situations, such as robberies or plane hijackings, but it’s also associated with abusive relationships, kidnappings, and childhood sexual abuse. The main characteristic of people with Stockholm syndrome is the bond and loyalty they exhibit toward their captor or abuser.

Other signs and symptoms of Stockholm syndrome may include:

  • Defending your captor to law enforcement or other authority figures
  • Remaining loyal to your captor even when given the opportunity to speak out against them
  • Being unwilling to escape or leave the captive situation even when the opportunity presents itself
  • Looking for approval and affection from your captors

Older research has linked Stockholm syndrome with PTSD, and research has found that people with Stockholm syndrome often exhibit signs of PTSD. That’s why understanding the symptoms of PTSD can be helpful when it comes to recognizing Stockholm syndrome.

Signs of PTSD may include:

  • Flashbacks to the traumatic event
  • Nightmares
  • Feeling easily startled
  • Angry outbursts
  • Not wanting to talk about the traumatic event
  • Wanting to stay away from people or places that remind you of the event
  • Feeling guilt about what happened
  • Negative self-image
  • Difficulty recalling details about the trauma

What Causes Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is not a psychiatric condition, but rather a description of an emotional and psychological state that may be exhibited by people in a captive situation. Although the phenomenon has been studied widely, researchers have not pinpointed an exact cause, nor are they sure why some people experience Stockholm syndrome, while others do not. The paper describes Stockholm syndrome as a kind of “survival mechanism” by victims of trauma and abuse.

Scientists believe that certain aspects of hostage situations may trigger the development Stockholm syndrome, such as:

  • The idea that if the person held hostage doesn’t please their captor, the threat toward them would escalate
  • The fact that the person held hostage is cut off from the rest of the world and may not understand every aspect of the situation they are in
  • The victim’s perception that escape is not possible, so survival (rather than escape) becomes the priority

Risk Factors

It’s not fully clear why certain people experience Stockholm syndrome during traumatic and abusive situations. But there are certain types of traumatic events that seem to increase the risk of a person developing Stockholm syndrome.

For example, Stockholm syndrome is linked to:

  • Hostage situations such as robberies and hijackings
  • Domestic violence
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Sex workers who’ve been trafficked, kidnapped, and abused
  • Young athletes who are the victims of abuse by athletic coaches

How Is Stockholm Syndrome Diagnosed?

Stockholm syndrome is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Therefore, there is no official way to diagnose Stockholm syndrome. However, healthcare providers and psychiatrists will likely be able to recognize the symptoms of the condition, especially if it's linked to typical events that trigger Stockholm syndrome, such as hostage situations and abuse.

Additionally, because Stockholm syndrome has been linked to PTSD and is associated with traumatic events, people with PTSD may be diagnosed with Stockholm syndrome after a psychiatric evaluation.

Treatments for Stockholm Syndrome

There are no known treatments for Stockholm syndrome. However, many of the treatments for PTSD can work well for people who have Stockholm syndrome.

Treatments for PTSD usually combine therapy and prescription medication.

Therapy for PTSD

Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” is used to treat PTSD. Therapy may last 6-12 weeks or longer. Types of psychotherapy used for PTSD include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Exposure therapy
  • Cognitive restructuring

Medication for PTSD

Medication for PTSD is used to address the symptoms that the traumatic event can trigger. Someone with PTSD may be prescribed antidepressants to address feelings of anxiety, worry, and numbness. Medication may also be prescribed to address sleep issues associated with PTSD, such as nightmares.

How to Prevent Stockholm Syndrome

Unfortunately, there are no known ways to prevent Stockholm syndrome besides avoiding situations that could trigger the condition. Most of the events that are associated with Stockholm syndrome happen by chance, and are not something that can be controlled.

Comorbid Conditions   

People who experience Stockholm syndrome have also experienced traumatic events, which is why the syndrome is closely linked to PTSD. More research needs to be done to understand the links between PTSD and Stockholm syndrome.

Stockholm syndrome is also associated with another psychological phenomenon called trauma bonding, which is where a victim of abuse becomes bonded to their abuser. Like Stockholm syndrome, trauma bonding is not an official psychological diagnosis, but a description of an observed phenomenon.

Living With Stockholm Syndrome

It’s important to understand that Stockholm syndrome is rare, and not everyone who experiences an event such as a hostage situation, kidnapping, or abusive relationship will develop Stockholm syndrome.

If you’ve learned that you experienced Stockholm syndrome, you should know that you didn’t do anything wrong. Experiencing this condition is one way that people find to survive extremely harrowing situations. You are not at fault—you were a victim of exploitation and abuse.

Recovering from Stockholm syndrome is possible. Remember that you are recovering from trauma, and trauma recovery is a gradual process. Make sure to surround yourself with support, both from professionals and friends and families who accept you for who you are and who believe in your strength and your ability to heal.

If a loved one has experienced Stockholm syndrome, it can be helpful to remind them that they shouldn’t feel guilty about what happened and that the situation was out of their control. Supporting them on their journey toward feeling better may include helping them find a therapist, and listening without judgment to their feelings.

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9 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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