Stockholm Syndrome explained: Why victims bond with abusers or captors

A coping mechanism, Stockholm syndrome can be described as a condition where the victim develops an emotional relationship with the abuser. These positive feelings are a response to various types of trauma. Stockholm Syndrome is not a mental health diagnosis, but a reaction to being abused. Many high-profile kidnappings witness this syndrome in the victims. A study, in fact, concludes that eight per cent of hostage victims suffer from this syndrome.

What is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is a type of trauma bonding. It is a condition where the victim or abused form an emotional bond with their perpetrators. It is a complex response to trauma which is named after an incident that took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Explaining the history of how the term emerged, the US Department of Justice states that two robbers held four bank employees as hostages for six days. During a bank robbery, the victims developed feelings and emotional bonds with the robbers. They even defended them later on when the case was being resolved. They refused to testify against them.

Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome

While Stockholm syndrome is not recognised by the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is a coping mechanism that showcases certain traits.

1. Positive feelings towards the captors

The victims develop a positive emotional bond with the captors which can be confusing for both the victims as well as others looking to understand the situation. In a study, published in the Journal of Psychosocial Wellbeing, the victims develop this bond during the intimate time they spend with their captors. It usually happens when the captor threatens the victim’s life but does not kill him or her.

2. Defending the perpetrators

People experiencing Stockholm syndrome go to the extent of defending the captors. This can seem to be emerging from a complex feeling of fear and emotional attachment. A research paper, published in the Journal of Emerging Technologies and Innovative Research suggests that here the hostages start to believe in the humanity of the captor, and no longer perceive them as a threat.

A woman shielding herself
Victims of Stockholm Syndrome don’t see any possibility of escape. Image courtesy: Pexels

3. Reluctance to cooperate with authorities

Victims may show reluctance in cooperating with authorities thinking that the perpetrators have done something in the best of their interest. A study, published in the Journal of Psychosocial Well-being, recounts the story of the granddaughter of businessman and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst; Patty Hearst, in 1974, who was taken hostage by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an urban guerilla group. It was seen that she joined the SLA to rob banks in San Francisco later.

4. A perceived inability to escape

A study, published in BMC International Health and Human Rights, states that sex workers experienced a situation where they were unable to escape after months of isolation and violence. They saw others who tried to escape but could not. This also contributes to Stockholm Syndrome.

Causes of Stockholm Syndrome in today’s context

Stockholm Syndrome is not only observed in hostage situations in bank robberies or other kinds of kidnappings. Many different situations may lead to the development of this syndrome.

1. Domestic abuse

The victims develop an emotional bond subconsciously as an increased chance of their survival. According to a study, published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, states that appeasement is how the victims combat the traumatic challenge set before them.

2. Child abuse

A study, published in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, states that adult victims of child sexual abuse may showcase symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. An emotional bond is created between the abuser and the child, and this bond continues to exist for years, even after the abuse has stopped and the child has grown up.

Also read: Childhood trauma can affect kids for life: Know its side effects

A couple fighting
Domestic abuse can be one of the causes of Stockholm syndrome. Image courtesy: Pexels

3. Sex workers

This syndrome can be seen in sex workers who rely on the abusers for their daily necessities of money or food. This is when they develop positive feelings towards the person traumatising them. A study, conducted by BMC International Health and Human Rights, analysed the situation of sex workers in India. It was seen that they all showcased symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome such as physical isolation, psychological demoralization; and perhaps most notably, the presence of a love relationship with the trafficker, stated the study.

4. Abusive sports coaching

Yes, there have been cases of Stockholm Syndrome in the area of youth athletics as well. A study, published in Children Australia, states that athletes sympathise and defend the traumatic actions of their coach.

How do you diagnose Stockholm Syndrome?

The American Psychological Association has not classified it as any specific mental health condition in its diagnostic manual. “It does not have a specific and direct diagnosis. However, mental health professionals can try to understand it through the emotional response of the clients from traumatic experiences,” explains Pandey.

How do you treat Stockholm Syndrome?

The line of treatment for Stockholm syndrome can be with medication therapies or a combination of both, depending on the degree of severity of the symptoms experienced by the victim. Therapies can help recover from the symptoms of PTSD, Stress, Depression and other associated symptoms. “A therapist can help the victim to learn the coping mechanism to help them process the way they feel. Cognitive restructuring can help restructure the thoughts, thus, shaping the attitude and beliefs of victims in more constructive ways,” says Pandey. Therapies can also help to replace unhelpful negative thoughts with helpful positive thoughts.

Summary

Stockholm syndrome can be viewed as a coping mechanism against a captor and is generally seen in kidnappings and hostage situations. However, it can also be showcased by victims of repeated sexual abuse and domestic abuse. Several therapies can help the victims. The objective of therapies for Stockholm syndrome is to help the victims learn healthy ways to cope with the trauma and lead a better life.

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