Is the Stockholm Syndrome Real? Know Everything About It

Often people are stuck in situations when they do not have control over their destiny. They are always geared up with intense fear and sufferings. In such situations, people believe that their fate is controlled by their tormentor. This type of strategy for survival may result in the development of a particular psychological condition.  The feeling of sympathy and need of support rises among the victim.

Stockholm Syndrome Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

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What is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is a condition where the hostages develop some kind of psychological disorder during their period of captivity. They develop a psychological alliance with the captors. The feeling is the development of the bond between the captives and the captivators during the period when they spend some time together.

Stockholm syndrome is generally a strong emotional tie that develops between two persons. The condition is that one person harasses beats, abuses, intimidates, or abuses the other. It is the condition where the captives start to closely identify with his captives along with their demands.

The name is derived from 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm where four people were kept as hostages for six days.

The Stockholm syndrome is usually observed among physically hurt women, abused children, camp prisoners, war prisoners, situations where women are mishandled by their spouses, human trafficking, etc. It is a syndrome where the victims become emotionally attached with their own kidnappers or captivators or abusers. There are basically four components that lead to the development of Stockholm syndromeL

  • When a hostage develops positive feelings towards his/her kidnappers or captors.
  • There is no previous hostage-captor relationship
  • When a hostage refuses to co-operate with police forces and government authorities.
  • When the hostage has a strong belief in the humanity of the captor. The hostage faces less risk of a threat as they have values equivalent to their aggressor.

The Early History of Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome gets its name from an infamous bank robbery that took place in 1973, in Stockholm, Sweden. The robbery was held by two arm men named Olsson and Olofsson who held captive four bank employees for six days. When the rescue attempts were conducted, the captives took sides of their captors and did not support the government in conviction. Even after the kidnappers surrendered themselves and were given life imprisonment, the captives tried every means to defend them. They tried to arrange money for the court proceedings in order to save the robbers from harsh punishments. It was known that the captors tortured the victims with dynamites and nooses. This syndrome was defined by Frank Ochberg to help the management of hostage conditions.

Despite the non-stop gunfire and regular threats of killing, the hostages claimed that they were not mistreated by the robbers. Upon examination, it was found that one of the captives got emotionally attached to the captors.

Here are some famous examples of the history of Stockholm syndrome:

  • Mary McElroy

Mary McElroy was abducted on gun point by four men. She was all of 25 when she was kidnapped and taken to an abandoned farmhouse. Mary was brutally chained in the farmhouse for days at a stretch. Finally, when she was rescued, she claimed that the kidnappers were just businessmen, and did not do any harm. She continued to visit them during their jail imprisonment. Later she committed suicide and left a note saying the kidnappers were the only people on earth who did not consider her as a fool.

  • Natascha Kampusch

At an early age of 10, Natasha Kampusch was held captive and insulated in a dark room under the garage of Wolfgang Pirklolpil. She was being sexually abused, received various kinds of permissive treatments, and was controlled abusively. She remained in a windowless room for years and was starved to become physically weak.  After eight years of the captivity, Natascha was rescued and Pirklolpil was found dead. Surprisingly, Natascha cried uncontrollably when her captor died. She even lit a candle for him at the morgue. She was so attached to her kidnapper that she lamented at a picture of the captor and kept it in her wallet for the rest of her life.

  • Patty Hearst

The heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped at the age of 19 by the Symbionese Liberal Army. After two months after her abduction, she was seen in various photographs, participating in the robbery along with SLA. Later she released a tape where she voiced her commitment and support for the SLA.

Later when the SLA group was arrested, she denounced the group. Her defense lawyer attributed her behavior and claimed it as the Stockholm syndrome. The reports that followed claimed that prior to the robbery, Hearst was kept captive in a small dark room where she was physically abused, and brutally assaulted before the robbery took place. Her defense lawyer tried to prove that she was not working under her own will and after seven years of imprisonment, she was pardoned by Bill Clinton.

  • Colleen Stan

Colleen Stan was kidnapped by Cameron Hooker and his wife when the former was hitchhiking to visit a friend in California. This was during 1977. She was kept in a retraining box underneath their bed. She was then brutally raped by Cameron and was forced to live as a sex slave for seven years. She was allowed to visit her mother but she came back to stay in the box and restrained from escaping. Even when she was rescued, Stan remained silent due to emotional bonding with Cameron’s wife.

How Does it Occur?

Renowned psychologists believe that the Stockholm syndrome occurs when a bond is cultivated between the captor and the captive. The initial threatening of life and then not choosing to kill the captive transforms the feelings towards a sense of gratitude. At first, the captive is afraid of death; later when the kidnapper deliberates and chooses not to kill, they leave a sense of empathy in the mind of captives.

In the robbery case, the bond cultivated was within a few days only. This shows the urge of surviving was more in the mind of captives than the hatred of being held. When the survival instincts overpower the fear, it results in Stockholm syndrome. The victims live independence that is forced on them by the small acts of kindness amidst the horrible circumstances. The captives become hypervigilant towards whatever the captors demand and thus, make a psychological bonding with the kidnapper. Creating a positive bond reduces the fear of getting harmed by the captors.

The development of the Stockholm syndrome in case of kidnapping is something like the below points:

  • In a stressful situation where a person is captive and is constantly threatened to kill and is physically and sexually abused and there is no option to escape, the captives think that the only chance of survival is obedience and follows what is done or said to them.
  • The captor is under pressure because of the obedience. The captives fear the change of mood in captor that may be harmful to them. The captive now tries to figure out options that may relieve the violent mood of the captor. In this way, they start forming an emotional or psychological connection.
  • The captor shows a minor act of kindness by not killing the captives. In return, the victim feels a sense of gratitude towards the captor. There is a sudden absence of violence and a sign of friendship shows up.
  • The captor becomes less-threatening and they both develop a friendly relationship. Most probably they try to rescue each other from the situation and get out of the mess. They become each other’s savior and protect the other person from any harm.

Stockholm syndrome and brainwashing have various similarities between each other. Both the situations are closely related to the effects of abnormal power on relationships between the captor and captive.

Causes of Stockholm Syndrome

The Stockholm syndrome is the result of several factors that are still unknown. Researchers have studied the syndrome but they have declared it to be complicated to analyze. However, here are some few causes that are commonly behind this syndrome:

  • When the captives feel that the kidnapper is doing them a favor by not killing them, they start thinking positive about them. The hostages thus develop a Stockholm syndrome.
  • The kidnapped are treated sympathetically and provided with a good ambiance. This causes the victim to start thinking positively about the kidnapper. Usually, a kidnapper is expected to treat the victims harshly, but a kinder treatment develops a sense of gratitude among them. This may cause Stockholm syndrome.
  • People who are kidnapped are isolated from the rest of the world. The only person they interact with is the captor. This helps them to see the kidnapper’s viewpoint. The kidnapped victim starts understanding the circumstances under which the crime took place, and thus favor the captors.
  • When the kidnappers are individual, women victims start developing a physical or emotional attachment with them. When they spend days together, they start developing an interest in each other. This brings them closer and causes Stockholm syndrome.
  • When the hostage is a woman, they are forced to please the kidnapper and are not allowed to flee. It involves harsh punishment or murder as well. When the woman is forced regularly, it becomes a habit and they become used to such behavior that develops Stockholm syndrome.
  • Initially, a woman victim tries hard to escape from the clutches of the captor. However, when they fail to do so, a sense of dependency overpowers them. These cases usually happen when there is no close family related to the victim. There are chances that the abductor has killed the victim’s family and she has no chance of escape. It becomes a necessity to follow the demands of the abductor.

In general, the hostage finds himself/herself trapped and finds no way to flee. They enter into the captor’s personal life and understand about their problem, desires, and dreams. When the hostage becomes reliant towards the torture and lets himself/herself completely in the mercy of the abductor, Stockholm syndrome develops. Studies reveal that out of all cases of kidnappings, only 8% are found to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome

  • The victim starts visioning himself/herself in the place of the kidnapper. This may be a protective reaction that is self-inspired by the thought that a kidnapper will not harm a hostage with the same thinking. Thus, the victim starts supporting and purposely starts connecting with the kidnapper.
  • The sufferer understands that any measures taken by him/her can prove to be dangerous. Thus, the victim gives up the determination of saving himself and tries defending the criminal.
  • A longer period of stay with the captor makes the captive see them as an ordinary individual. They identify the criminal as a general next-door person who committed the crime under critical circumstances. They find that the ideologies are not wrong and start supporting them. The victim understands that the kidnapper is not wrong and does everything logically correct.
  • The captives face mental trauma and start thinking that there is light at the end of the path. They move away from reality, though.

Some of the symptoms are as follows:

  • They try to defend the abductors
  • The fall in love with the kidnappers
  • Get emotionally attached
  • Resist any type of rescue attempts from the police
  • Refuse to testify against the captor
  • Refuse to flee from the kidnappers
  • Lack of feeling, aggression, and dependence on the captor
  • Development of post-traumatic disorder
  • Helplessness, guilt, fear
  • Anxiousness, estrangement, cautiousness, irritable
  • Refusal to accept reality
  • Recurring flashbacks
  • Confusion or blurred memory
  • Development of health conditions due to weakness. Possible lack of sleep or food

Diagnosis of Stockholm Syndrome

Modern psychological practices for the diagnosis of Stockholm syndrome are a combination of clinical, psychometrical, and psychological methods. A clinical diagnostic scale is used to step by step to diagnose the patient through various diagnostic methods.

The methods consist of a questionnaire that allows the psychologists to evaluate the mental state of the victim. This may be effective in identifying cognitive disorders, anxiousness triggered by shock or effects of traumatizing drugs, etc. At each stage of the interview, the psychologist tries to evaluate the condition of the patient. In the final stage, they consult with close relatives or family who are closely in touch with the patient.

The most common diagnostic methods are:

  • The Mississippi scale that determines the post-traumatic trauma
  • Bek’s interview that determines the depression level
  • PTSD scale
  • Interview to determine the scale of psychopathic signs
  • The severity of psychological trauma determined with an evaluation scale.

Treatment of Stockholm Syndrome

In order to treat the Stockholm syndrome, it is important to first find the signs and symptoms of the syndrome. Here are the possible treatments:

  • It is very important to visit a psychologist. The health professionals will comprehend the condition and develop a strategy to help the patient overcome the situation.
  • People suffering from Stockholm syndrome fail to understand that how critical the situation is. Do not force them to change their mind. Try to convince but you cannot insist on them. Pushing them further may complicate the situation and it may become dangerous to the patients.
  • It is important to show love and affection to the patient. Convey trust so that they do not see you as an enemy.
  • Often it is seen that the victims try to isolate themselves. It is necessary to remain in touch with them. Keep them happy and remain in contact.
  • Sometimes, the situation may worsen. It is important to remain calm and show your love and patience to the victim. Be patient and try to listen to what the patient has to say.
  • Evaluate the conditions by researching more about the subject. You must have gathered complete knowledge before taking the patient to a health center.
  • When the victims trust you, they will tell you everything. In that case, do not get angry or frustrated. Listen to them with patience and be careful what you say to them.
  • Additionally, take them to a psychologist or a medical specialist for a proper treatment.

Properly conducted psychotherapy treatment offers promising results in curing Stockholm syndrome. Additionally, cognitive treatment through cognitive methods has also been fruitful in the evaluation of misconception and misleading interferences. The patient learns to conduct the following operations:

  • Follow the thoughts arising automatically
  • Trace the relationship and evaluate the emotions
  • Analyze the facts that brings them to a conclusion
  • Conduct realistic assessment of whatever is happening to them.
  • Recognize functional disorders and lead to conclusions.

No emergency treatment can be undertaken in case of this syndrome. The treatment is time taking and needs to be carried out under medical observation.

Stockholm Syndrome in Different Aspects of Life

Corporate Stockholm Syndrome:

People, who are at a job, are usually seen terrorized by their boss. This type of workplace hostage is categorized under Corporate Stockholm Syndrome. This situation develops when a person wants to change a job but are kept hostage by the boss using manipulative ideas. They stop them from looking at internal roles, isolate them from the senior management, micromanage their work projects, discredit them in front of other colleagues, threaten them to ruin them career, and many such challenges. Here the captor is the boss, and the captives are the employee who are manipulatively held and taken under corporate hostage. However, it is quite different from the real hostage. The boss does not actually capture anyone but tries to manipulate and threaten the employees from leaving the workplace. When one is being held hostage in a workplace, here are the steps that one may follow:

  • Choose to do nothing and collude with the hostage-taker.
  • Understand the controlling behavior of the boss, and spend the entire period with him managing assignments by allowing him to control your work period.
  • Understand the politics behind isolating you from the colleagues. Try to connect with the colleagues at the workplace and manage them by building your own powerful alliance. The abductor may try to block your alliance but you must manage to get help from others.
  • Schedule a private meeting to have an honest conversation with your boss. Explain your perspective on their behavior on your work. Directly blaming or naming the behavior will land you up in a difficult situation.
  • Make formal complaints to the senior management or the HR department. You can follow legal proceedings to avoid such corporate Stockholm syndrome.
  • The choice is open to you. Nobody can hold you back if you choose to walk away. The key is to remain dignified while walking out of the workplace.

Hostage Syndrome:

The hostage syndrome is the situation where the captive is completely dependent on the abductor or the captor. Over the time, the hostage starts talking good about the captor’s behavior and accepts his actions. The dependent person tries to replace the fear and anguish with love and affection. These results in gaining sympathy from the abductor. This type of syndrome is seen in the 1973 bank robbery case where the six hostages blindly defended the two abductors.

Household Stockholm Syndrome:

The household syndrome is found in the everyday life. Women are usually found to be hostage who tries to survive domestic violence and aggression while being held in the house. Women often suffer humiliation from her spouse, face domestic violence, but experience a feeling of sympathy or emotion with the captor. The syndrome may develop between parents and a child as well. People who remained unhappy during childhood are found to be jealous of the children who are loved by their parents. The complex inferiority feeling makes them aggressive and they tend to hostage others. A person with a history of being bullied in childhood is also among those who may try to keep other children hostage.

One of the types of the household syndrome is post-traumatic. Here the violence is in physical form, for example, rape.

Social Stockholm Syndrome:

Under these conditions, the survivor sacrifices himself to the captor and identifies himself with cohesive strategies that help him to survive with the aggressor. The captive tries to get involved physically and morally with the captor for survival. The basic principles are as follows:

  • A person tries to emphasize more on positive emotions
  • The is a complete negation of negative emotions
  • Repeats the opinion of the aggressor and eliminates own opinions
  • The person tries to blame himself
  • The person becomes more secretive and does not discuss it anymore
  • The victim learns the strategies to understand the mood, peculiarities, habits and the behavioral changes of the aggressor
  • The person tries to deceive himself. Falsely admires the aggressor, stimulates loves and respect for them or get involved sexually with them.

Stockholm Buyers’ Syndrome

A person who is indulged in buying expensive products or using expensive services and later tries to justify it is considered to be suffering from Stockholm Buyer’s syndrome. It is the manifestation of distortion of one’s choice. The person is considered to be suffering from acute customer appetite and does not identify any wastage of money. It is one of the most harmless syndromes and only affects the person facing the issue though it may be because of abnormal upbringing, social consequences, psychological distortions, etc.

Prevention of Stockholm Syndrome

If you are in a situation where you have been taken hostage, physically or mentally, it is important that you try your best to prevent the development of the Stockholm syndrome. It must be remembered that prevention is totally in the hands of the captive and can be done by following these simple steps:

Be terrified:

If you have been physically captivated, it is important that you remain terrified by what has happened. Never let your fear go away or you may start seeing things as ‘normal’ even if they are not. Loss of fear may trigger Stockholm syndrome.

Be in touch with reality:

Never let yourself lose touch of the real situation. You are under captivity and that is a terrible doing, irrespective of how good the captor behaves or how well he/she takes care of you. He/she did a heinous job of robbing you of your freedom and you should never forget that.

Play the part:

It is true that you have to feel anger and loathing towards the captor. But do not let that show. Be a good actor and show that you feel for them and understand their reasons of a kidnapping. However, do not let that get into your head. Play you’re your part well so as not to anger the captor as they may harm you.

Do not feel sympathetic or emotional:

The captor may present you with a sobering story to justify his act, but do not let yourself feel sorry or emotional because of that. What he/she did was wrong and you must loathe him for that. Never try to stand in support for their cause as it is not your job to decide whether he/she should receive any forgiveness.

Do not trust them:

Even if they promise that they do not intend to harm you, never take their word for it. They have committed a crime and they mustn’t be trusted. It is quite possible that they are trying to manipulate you to keep you away from reality and support their cause.

Plan your escape:

You may know that escape is not possible unless outside help arrives, but do not stop from fantasizing your escape. Keep thinking of ways to escape and envision yourself actually escaping. This will keep you motivated and help you stay in touch with reality.

Who are at Risk?

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological condition and does not involve any death threat. However, there are certain risks that cannot be ignored. In this syndrome, the victim may fall in love with the kidnapper or get physically involved with them. People who are at risk of Stockholm syndrome are;

  • Abused kids
  • Disgruntled families
  • War captives
  • Incest sufferers
  • Beautiful women
  • Camp captives
  • Cult members
  • Women facing household syndrome
  • Controlling relationships


Real life cases prove that Stockholm syndrome can become a major issue when a person is abducted and brutally tortured. The hostage that develops a positive bond with the abductor may defend or support him. Alongside, they prefer to stay back with them. Researchers sometimes fail to understand whether the dependency means the captors are dependent on the captors for food, basic amenities, or something else. The dependency also arises out of fear and eventually creates a bond among the two people. In the worst cases, it is seen that the captive is preoccupied with the influence of the captor. They start seeing them as God. Stockholm syndrome also causes Post-traumatic stress disorder among the captives. It is proved that the captives accept to follow the path as led by their abductor. Clinically, Stockholm syndrome has no actual treatment. Only love, empathy, and patience can help a person to break free of the intangible bondage.

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