Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Stockholm syndrome is a condition where the hostages develop a strong emotional connection with their captors during captivity.

What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological and emotional response to an unforeseen traumatic event that occurs when hostages or abused victims develop a positive bond with their captors or abusers. It is often influenced by imbalanced power dynamics in abusive relationships, kidnappings and hostage-taking scenarios. The victim tends to develop a connection and attachment with their captor(s). Instead of being afraid or fearful, the victim starts to empathize and sympathize with the abusive individual.

They feel like they share a common vision with their captors. According to studies 1, this syndrome seems to be “an automatic, probably unconscious emotional response to the traumatic experience of being a victim. It affects hostage and hostage-takers alike and serves to unite both, being victims of siege environments against outsiders”.

How Long Does It Take To Develop Stockholm Syndrome?

It takes a few days, weeks, months, or even years in captivity to develop Stockholm syndrome. Moreover, the victim can also become averse to and develop a negative perception of rescuers, such as authorities and police. However, not every victim or hostage may experience this syndrome.

Understanding Stockholm Syndrome

The term Stockholm syndrome was coined by psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Bejorat 2 to explain the irrational feelings of some captives for their captors. Experts believe that this phenomenon is primarily a coping mechanism that enables sufferers to cope with a traumatic experience. It is also said that this syndrome may be able to save the life of the victim as it can reduce the captor’s tendency towards violence, making it easier for the security forces to seize the situation.

When someone develops this disorder, they are found to sympathize with their abusers or captors instead of feeling terrified. Individuals experiencing this condition are found to feel love, empathy, and even desire to protect their captors. They may also develop negative feelings towards police or government authorities who are trying to rescue them. The psychological effects of Stockholm syndrome are brief, and its long-term impact is still being studied.

What Is The Origin Of Stockholm Syndrome?

Even though Stockholm syndrome is a well known mental health condition, it is not recognized 3 by the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Stockholm episodes have been occurring over centuries. But it wasn’t until 1973 that it was identified as the “Stockholm Syndrome”.

Two men had held four people as hostages for 6 days at a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. Even though the hostages were released, they refused to testify against their captors. They even started raising money for their defense.

Psychologists and mental health experts then assigned the term to the condition wherein the hostages develop a strong emotional bond with their captors while being held and refuse to testify against them even after being rescued.

Cases Of Stockholm Syndrome

Most people have known the phrase Stockholm Syndrome from the innumerable high profile kidnapping and hostage cases, usually involving women, where they develop an emotional bond with their captors.

A few Stockholm syndrome examples are listed below:

1. Patty Hearst

The term is closely associated with the Patty Hearst case 4. The Californian newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. She appeared to develop strong connections and sympathy with her captors. Hearst was found to work with her captors in the bank robbery. She was eventually caught and then imprisoned. But her lawyer claimed that she was brainwashed and was suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome”. This was, however, declined and she was sentenced to 35 years of prison.

2. Natascha Kampusch

Natasha Kampusch 5, a 10 year old girl, was kidnapped by Wolfgang Přiklopil and kept underground in a dark cellar for over 8 years. During that time, even though he beat her and threatened to kill her, he also showed kindness. She was able to escape and the kidnapper then committed suicide. It was said that Natasha wept inconsolably after learning the news about her captor.

3. Victims Of Abuse And Trauma

Aside from such high profile crime cases, regular people can develop this syndrome in response to various types of trauma. Cases of Stockholm syndrome in abusive relationships, child abuse, and human trafficking are common.

According to a 2018 study 6, this phenomenon can also be witnessed in female sex workers around the world. Most sex workers were found to be kidnapped, trafficked, emotionally abused, sexually violated, physically exploited, and isolated from their families and the public. However, when rescued by authorities and supported by non-governmental organizations, they refused to testify in court against traffickers. A 2020 study 7 suggested that victims of domestic violence may also experience Stockholm Syndrome.

Signs Of Stockholm Syndrome

Signs Of Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is usually recognized by several distinct events or symptoms. They are as follows:

  • The victim or hostage develops positive feelings or a strong emotional connection with the person holding them captive or abusing them.
  • The hostage develops negative feelings towards authoritative figures like the police or anyone who is trying to help them from their captor.
  • The victims start to believe that they have the same goals and values and begin to perceive their captor’s humanity.
  • They feel pity for their captors.
  • They refuse to leave or look for an escape opportunity.
  • They refuse to assist the police or government authorities in prosecuting the perpetrators.

These feelings usually occur because of an emotionally and highly charged situation that occurs during the hostage situation or the abuse cycle. For instance, an individual who is kidnapped or taken hostage often feels threatened by their captor but is also highly dependent on them for their survival. However, if the captor shows some kindness to them, the victim may start to get positive feelings, such as being compassionate towards their captor.

With time, the perception begins to reshape and change about how they view the person keeping them hostage.

Causes Of Stockholm Syndrome

The debate is still ongoing on whether it is a real condition experienced by victims. However, some experts believe that Stockholm syndrome can develop when:

  • The captors show kindness to the victims
  • The hostage and the captors have significant conversations that provide an opportunity to bond with them
  • The hostages or victims feel that the authorities or the police are not doing a well enough job

Occurrence Of Stockholm Syndrome

Prevalence of Stockholm Syndrome

Even though the Stockholm syndrome is largely associated with hostage or kidnapping situations it can actually apply to several other circumstances and relationships. The syndrome can occur in the following situations:

1. Abusive Relationships

Several studies 8 have shown that abused individuals may develop an emotional attachment with their abuser. Stockholm syndrome in abusive relationships includes instances of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, as well as incest, for many years. Over the passage of time, the person may develop positive feelings or sympathy for the person abusing them.

2. Child Abuse

Abusers usually threaten their minor victims with harm, even death. Hence, victims usually try to avoid upsetting them by being compliant. Abusers, in turn, show kindness that can be perceived as a genuine feeling. This can confuse the child and they may not understand the negative nature of the relationship

A 2005 study 9 on survivors of child sexual abuse found that “Aspects of Stockholm Syndrome could be identified in the responses of adult survivors of child sexual abuse, which appeared to impact on their ability to criminally report offenders.”

Read More About Adverse Childhood Experiences Here.

3. Sex Trafficking

People who are trafficked usually rely on their abusers for necessities like food and water. When the abusers provide the basic necessities the victim begins to develop positive feelings towards their abuser. They may resist cooperating with the authorities for their fear of retaliation. They think that they have to protect their abuser in order to protect themselves.

4. Sports Coaching

Being associated with sports is an excellent way to build skills and relationships. However, some relationships may ultimately develop negatively. Harsh coaching techniques may sometimes become abusive. A 2018 study 10 suggested that athletes may think that their coach’s harsh behavior is for their own good and they can experience the effects of Stockholm syndrome.

Diagnosis Of Stockholm Syndrome

Psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg was extremely intrigued by the phenomenon. He went on to define the syndrome for the FBI and Scotland Yard in the 1970s. While formulating strategies for Stockholm syndrome diagnosis, he listed the criteria to identify its tell-tale signs.

The criteria are as follows as:

  • In the first stage, the victim is terrified of their captor. They feel certain that they are going to die.
  • In the second stage, they experience a kind of infantilization where they are unable to eat, speak, or use the bathroom without permission just like a child. According to Dr. Frank Ochberg, small acts of kindness such as giving food prompted them to feel “primitive gratitude for the gift of life”.
  • In the third stage and final stage, the hostages develop a positive and strong emotional connection with their captors. They deny the fact that this is the person who has put them in danger. In the victim’s mind, they think that the captor is the person who is going to let them live. Thus, they are willing to obey their captors.

How Do You Treat Stockholm Syndrome?

How to treat Stockholm Syndrome

The treatment options usually entail counseling or psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Long-term psychotherapy can help alleviate symptoms and manage immediate issues like anxiety and depression.

The Stockholm syndrome treatment options are:

1. Counseling Or Psychological Therapy

Counseling involves a process where a trained professional helps the individual to find ways to work through and understand their problems. It is a form of talking therapy that walks the patient through painful memories and helps to develop a coping mechanism.

2. Exposure Therapy

This therapy 11 helps to safely face both situations and memories that the patient is afraid of so that they can gradually learn to cope with them. One approach usually uses virtual reality 12 programs that allow the patient to enter similar situations in order to have a different approach to the traumatic situation.

3. Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing (EMDR)

Treatment or Stockholm syndrome also includes EMDR therapy 13 which is usually used for PTSD patients. It combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help the patient process traumatic memories and change the way the patient reacts to them.

Read More About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Here


This syndrome doesn’t occur in every victim or hostage case. However, it is unclear why it occurs in some people when it does. Many psychologists consider it as a coping mechanism to deal with the associated trauma. This enables the victims to deal with the trauma or the terrifying situation.

Even though fear or terror must be the common reaction of the traumatic event, some individuals begin to develop an emotional connection with their captors. They don’t want to work with or contact the police. They may even be hesitant to turn their captors to the authorities.

Even though it is not recognized as a mental health condition in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), the signs of Stockholm Syndrome have been observed in several cases. However, therapy can help victims to recover from the adverse or long-term effects of Stockholm syndrome.

Stockholm Syndrome At A Glance

  1. Stockholm syndrome is a condition where the hostage develops positive feelings for their captor in captivity.
  2. It is not a formally recognized mental health condition.
  3. People with this syndrome refuse to leave or escape, even if granted the opportunity.
  4. The victims/hostages feel pity for the captors, even sharing their goals and values.
  5. They negatively view law and order authorities and refuse to prosecute their captors.
  6. This syndrome is seen in abusive relationships, child abuse, sex trafficking, etc.
  7. It can be addressed by a number of therapies.

Frequently Answered Questions (FAQs)

1. Does Stockholm syndrome go away?

Stockholm syndrome goes away with time. It only occurs in an emotionally charged hostage situation or an abuse cycle, triggered by kindness shown by the captors. But, as the hostages reshape their views of the captors, the effects of Stockholm syndrome go away.

2. Is Stockholm syndrome brainwashing?

Stockholm syndrome is brainwashing of hostages by captors, leading them to cooperate in captivity. Others believe that the syndrome occurs when hostages themselves manipulate their own emotions to cope with a hostile situation.

3. What’s the difference between Stockholm and Helsinki syndromes?

Stockholm and Helsinki syndromes are not the same. Helsinki syndrome doesn’t exist, but Stockholm syndrome does. They are mistakenly used interchangeably to mean the condition in which the hostages develop positive feelings for their captors in captivity.

4. Is Stockholm syndrome in DSM-5?

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) does not recognize Stockholm syndrome. Instead, it is considered a non-disorder mental condition or a behavioral coping method used in hostage/abusive situations.

5. How can one get over Stockholm syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is brief coping behavior in hostile situations and so, it disappears after the situation goes away or with time. If not, one should avail Stockholm syndrome help, like therapies and group support, to treat its long-term effects.

👇 References:
  1. Harnischmacher, R., & Müther, J. (1987). Das Stockholm-Syndrom. Zur psychischen Reaktion von Geiseln und Geiselnehmern [The Stockholm syndrome. On the psychological reaction of hostages and hostage-takers]. Archiv fur Kriminologie, 180(1-2), 1–12. []
  2. Alexander, D. A., & Klein, S. (2009). Kidnapping and hostage-taking: a review of effects, coping and resilience. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 102(1), 16–21. []
  3. Namnyak, M., Tufton, N., Szekely, R., Toal, M., Worboys, S., & Sampson, E. L. (2008). ‘Stockholm syndrome’: psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?. Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica, 117(1), 4–11. []
  4. Montgomery B. J. (1979). Reflections on the Patty Hearst case. JAMA, 242(2), 126–127. []
  5. Stieger, S., Gumhalter, N., Tran, U. S., Voracek, M., & Swami, V. (2013). Girl in the cellar: a repeated cross-sectional investigation of belief in conspiracy theories about the kidnapping of Natascha Kampusch. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 297. []
  6. 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), 10. []
  7. Rahme, C., Haddad, C., Akel, M., Khoury, C., Obeid, H., Obeid, S., & Hallit, S. (2021). Does Stockholm Syndrome Exist in Lebanon? Results of a Cross-Sectional Study Considering the Factors Associated With Violence Against Women in a Lebanese Representative Sample. Journal of interpersonal violence, 36(23-24), 11509–11531. []
  8. 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. The Australian and New Zealand journal of psychiatry, 41(5), 377–384. []
  9. Jülich S. (2005). Stockholm syndrome and child sexual abuse. Journal of child sexual abuse, 14(3), 107–129. []
  10. Bachand, Charles & Djak, Nikki. (2018). Stockholm Syndrome in Athletics: A Paradox. Children Australia. 43. 1-6. 10.1017/cha.2018.31. []
  11. Sars, D., & van Minnen, A. (2015). On the use of exposure therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders: a survey among cognitive behavioural therapists in the Netherlands. BMC psychology, 3(1), 26. []
  12. Boeldt, D., McMahon, E., McFaul, M., & Greenleaf, W. (2019). Using Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy to Enhance Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: Identifying Areas of Clinical Adoption and Potential Obstacles. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 773. []
  13. Shapiro F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente journal, 18(1), 71–77. []