What is Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response to being held captive. People with Stockholm syndrome form a psychological connection with their captors and begin sympathizing with them.
In addition to the original kidnapper-hostage situation, Stockholm syndrome now includes other types of trauma in which there’s a bond between the abuser and the person being abused.
Many medical professionals consider the victim’s positive feelings toward their abuser a psychological response — a coping mechanism — that they use to survive the days, weeks or even years of trauma or abuse.
Other closely linked psychological conditions include:
- Trauma bonding.
- Learned helplessness.
- Battered person syndrome.
How did Stockholm syndrome get its name?
This condition gets its name from a 1973 bank robbery incident that happened in Stockholm, Sweden. During the six-day standoff with police, many of the captive bank employees became sympathetic toward the bank robbers. After they were set free, some bank employees refused to testify against the bank robbers in court and even raised money for their defense.
A criminologist and psychiatrist investigating the event developed the term, “Stockholm syndrome” to describe the affinity some bank employees showed toward the bank robbers.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome?
People who have Stockholm syndrome have:
- Positive feelings toward the captors or abusers.
- Sympathy for their captors’ beliefs and behaviors.
- Negative feelings toward police or other authority figures.
Other symptoms are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and include:
- Feeling distrustful, irritated, jittery or anxious.
- Can’t relax or enjoy things that you previously enjoyed.
- Trouble concentrating.
What causes Stockholm syndrome?
Researchers don’t know why some captives develop Stockholm syndrome and others don’t.
One theory is that this is a learned technique passed down from our ancestors. In the early civilization, there was always a risk of being captured or killed by another social group. Bonding with captors increased the chance of survival. Some evolutionary psychiatrists believe this ancestral technique is a natural human trait.
Another theory is that a captive or abuse situation is highly emotionally charged. People adjust their feelings and start having compassion for their abuser when they’re shown some kindness over time. Also, by working with and not fighting against an abuser, victims may secure their safety. When not harmed by their abuser, a victim may feel grateful and even view their abuser as humane.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is Stockholm syndrome diagnosed?
The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t officially recognize or include Stockholm syndrome as a condition in its latest diagnostic manual — the gold standard of mental health diseases and conditions. Because it’s not included, healthcare providers may or may not recognize this condition. However, all healthcare providers recognize behaviors that result from a traumatic situation. The criteria for PTSD or acute stress disorder and some treatments are often similar to Stockholm syndrome.
Management and Treatment
How is Stockholm syndrome treated?
As Stockholm syndrome isn’t recognized as a psychological condition, there’s no standard treatment. However, like treatment for PTSD, treatment of Stockholm syndrome usually involves psychiatric and psychological counseling (“talk therapy”) and/or medication. If you or a loved one has Stockholm syndrome, you’ll learn healthy ways to cope with your trauma.
Therapy may help you:
- Understand your experience.
- Understand how sympathetic behavior toward your captors was a survival skill.
- Learn how you can move forward with your life.
Outlook / Prognosis
What’s the prognosis for people with Stockholm syndrome?
First, most people who experience abuse, trauma or captive situations don’t develop Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome is a rare psychological reaction to a captive or abusive situation. Psychotherapy can help you or a loved one recover and move forward with your life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Stockholm syndrome apply only to hostage situations?
Although Stockholm syndrome was named based on the location of a bank robbery-hostage situation, some of the same behaviors and feelings are seen in victims of other types of trauma, including:
- Sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
- Child abuse.
- Coach-athlete abuse. One example might be athletes who agree to extreme, abusive workouts because they believe the coach knows what’s best for them.
- Human sex trafficking.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Stockholm syndrome is a coping mechanism. Instead of feelings of fear, terror and hostility toward your abuser, you may begin feeling a sense of humanity and compassion for them. If you or a loved one has experienced Stockholm syndrome, know that your positive feelings toward your abuser are not a fault. What you’re feeling is an understandable way of coping with and surviving what happened to you. Your healthcare provider will work with you to help you or your loved one recover.
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