Stockholm Syndrome: What Is It?

Stockholm syndrome refers to a psychological state in which the hostage develops an affective bond with the captor. Learn more.
Stockholm Syndrome: What Is It?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 12 February, 2023

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological condition in which a victim or hostage develops empathy toward an abuser or captor. Stated this way, it seems like a fairly simple phenomenon, although it’s actually more complex than it seems. It’s not included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), nor in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

As the experts point out, Stockholm syndrome is used indiscriminately by the media as a catch-all term in situations of abuse, capture, and violence. This has resulted in trivialization, or in using it in contexts in which the syndrome isn’t involved. In the following article, we’ll teach you what’s known about it and in what circumstances it usually develops.

Features of Stockholm syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological reaction used to describe the events of the famous Norrmalmstorg robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973. Hostages in a credit bank robbery developed empathy for their captor, and even protected him, given their fear of being involved in a situation of violence with the police. It was the psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, an adviser to the Swedish police during the assault at the time, who coined the term.

Just a few months later, in February 1974, Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Shortly after her release, Patricia helped her kidnappers hold up a bank. During the trial, her lawyers attempted to claim that Patricia had developed Stockholm Syndrome, though this was dismissed by the court. This event popularized the phenomenon throughout the world.

In general, the syndrome refers to a situation in which a person develops an emotional response to a captor or abuser. They do so in regard to their demands, agendas, and intentions, but also with their life and their personality. In other words, they manifest a positive bond instead of the opposite.

It’s not recognized by international diagnostic manuals, although it’s often cited as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder or acute stress disorder. It’s sometimes called Helsinki syndrome, although this is due to a misunderstanding generated by the film Die Hard (1988). Psychologists, psychiatrists, and specialists are restrained when using the term, but this isn’t the case among the non-specialized public.

Symptoms of Stockholm syndrome

Understanding Stockholm Syndrome.
Even in the most desperate situations, some victims can develop empathy for their captor as a coping mechanism.

The syndrome manifests itself in many ways, although it always does so by generating empathy towards a person who assumes the role of captor or abuser. Because of this, the typical picture is characterized by the following:

  • Kindness or compassion toward the captor
  • Rejection and distrust toward those who seek to free them (police officers, friends, family, and others)
  • Developing pity regarding the situation that the captor’s going through
  • Denial when given the choice of freedom (they choose to accompany their captor until the end)
  • Assimilation of the values, objectives, ideology, and goals of their oppressor

All these reactions develop during the time that the hostage/captor or victim/victimizer bond is maintained. It can persist after that bond is broken, often leading to bouts of shame, regret, confusion, difficulty trusting others, social withdrawal, feelings of emptiness, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and so on.

Ultimately, Stockholm syndrome frequently gives way to post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorder. People who develop it have difficulties getting back into social life as well as dealing with situations that they consider similar in the future. It’s common for them to have flashbacks of the time while awake or asleep.

Causes of Stockholm Syndrome

Causes of Stockholm Syndrome.
The people most predisposed to developing Stockholm syndrome are those who deal with high levels of stress and anxiety.

Although Stockholm Syndrome is talked about in the media as a well-understood phenomenon, there are actually many gaps around it. Such is the case of its triggers, as the patients who have manifested it have different profiles. Attempts have been made to link it to child sexual abuse, while some experts associate it with episodes of domestic violence.

Certainly, those who’ve had to deal with situations like these are more prone to developing Stockholm syndrome; but the syndrome can appear independently of them as well. Some researchers suggest that the phenomenon is simpler than it seems, as it’s due only to an instinct to preserve one’s life. That is, if a hostage sympathizes with their captor, it’s much less likely that they’ll end up being harmed.

It’s true that some criteria must be met for the syndrome to manifest itself. For example, there must be a certain degree of communication between the perpetrator and the victim, the situation must extend over several hours or days, and the captor must develop some kindness and empathy toward the hostage’s reaction. The syndrome can appear in the following contexts:

  • Prisoners of war
  • Situations of domestic violence
  • Concentration camp prisoners
  • Members of a sect
  • Victims of sexual violence

It’s important to highlight that the phenomenon manifests itself more frequently in those who’ve developed an aversion to the police, order, society, or the law. Those who feel that they’re not fully protected, that they’re part of a discriminated group, and that have been rejected in various ways by society tend to connect more easily with their captors.

Treatment options

Given that this is a syndrome that hasn’t been thoroughly studied and that it isn’t included in the internationally standardized diagnostic and treatment manuals, there’s no consensus on how to deal with it. Psychological or psychiatric therapy is often chosen due to the tendency to develop anxiety and post-traumatic stress after the events.

Many times, empathy and connection persist after the capture or violent situation has ended, which can compromise emotional well-being. It’s not uncommon for those affected to refuse to cooperate with justice, either by declaring in court or managing complaint processes. The support of family, friends, and society is very useful to counteract isolation reactions.

  • Jülich, S. Stockholm syndrome and child sexual abuse. Journal of child sexual abuse. 2005; 14(3): 107-129.
  • McKenzie, I. K. The Stockholm syndrome revisited: Hostages, relationships, prediction, control and psychological science. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations. 2004; 4(1): 5-21.
  • Nair, M. S. Stockholm syndrome-A self delusive survival strategy. International Journal of Advanced Research. 2015; 3(11): 385-388.
  • Wallace, P. How can she still love him? Domestic violence and the Stockholm syndrome. Community Practitioner. 2007; 80(10): 32-35

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