Stockholm Syndrome

What is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is a widely studied phenomenon. Often discussed in the context of famous kidnapping cases, people who suffer from Stockholm syndrome develop bizarre connections to the people who abuse them.

These connections are often so strong they may prevent the victim from testifying against the abuser or even cause them to join in on the abuse against others. Many people have an inaccurate view of Stockholm syndrome from watching media in which stereotypes of sufferers are shown. This leads to an incredibly inaccurate view by the public and often interferes with efforts to help patients.

However, in recent years there is evidence this sort of thinking appears to be changing.

Stockholm syndrome overview

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological condition found in certain abuse victims. The victim begins to sympathize with the person who has victimized them. This phenomenon is absolutely baffling to psychological experts and law enforcement when they encounter it. Stockholm syndrome isn’t a particularly common disorder, but its impact on victims and their families is absolutely devastating. A victim of Stockholm syndrome may refuse to leave their captivity or even help their predator victimize others. This often requires professional help in deprogramming the abuse victim. Unfortunately, even with the assistance of professionals, many patients will continue to hold onto their attachments to their captors.

The true number of people suffering from Stockholm syndrome is not known, but given the large number of sexual and physical abuse cases out there, it is likely to be quite common. In addition to the often cited examples of kidnapping and stranger assaults, many people live with abusive spouses or were raised by abusive parents. Despite this, they somehow learn to bond with the people who abuse them. Currently, it is believed that more than 30% of all Americans were abused as children. With that statistic in mind, it is almost certain that many Americans have Stockholm Syndrome.

Stockholm syndrome remains an active area of investigation for psychologists, but recent efforts have also placed neurological research into play as well. It’s important that experts find out more about Stockholm syndrome. The condition is poorly understood and there aren’t even clear studies on the prevalence of Stockholm syndrome. Much work remains and resources towards that work are scarce.

Stockholm Syndrome Symptoms

In general, Stockholm syndrome manifests itself as an attachment to an abuser. Initially, the victim may be afraid of the person who has captured them but learns to accept their fate over time. As the victim begins to accept their fate, they will begin to think of ways to please their abuser in order to avoid any more abuse. Depending on the situation, these symptoms can manifest in remarkably different forms.

An illustrative example of Stockholm syndrome is the case of Patty Hearst. The daughter of a wealthy publishing magnate, she had a life most people would only be able to dream of. All of that changed when she was kidnapped by members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army. Held captive by the radical terrorist, she was broken down until she agreed to participate in the robberies and acts of terrorism the Liberation Army wanted to commit. Her commitment to the Symbionese Liberation Army’s cause was so strong she even took up arms and shot some victims in their honor. Her commitment to their cause was simply far greater than what anyone would have anticipated for a young socialite. After she was rescued from the Symbionese Liberation Army, it became clear the experience had taken a toll on her.

While Stockholm syndrome victims may bond with their captors, the effects of the experience are far from positive. Psychological testing on Hearst showed many obvious signs of deterioration from her time in captivity. She lost nearly 20 IQ points when examined by psychometric professionals. She would also experience nightmares and tremors for the rest of her life. Her coping mechanisms were quite worrisome as well such as excessive smoking. The after effects of Stockholm syndrome are far greater than the actual experience itself and tend to last for years if not a lifetime.

Stockholm Syndrome Causes

The exact causes of Stockholm Syndrome are not well understood. However, anthropologists have found certain tantalizing hints at the possible origins of Stockholm syndrome. In tribal societies, kidnappings occur often during war, with young women being the most likely victims. These women have no means to defend themselves against the much more powerful men they are kidnapped by, so they often adapt by bonding with their captors. The bonding reduces the risk of injury for the victim and ensures a certain level of protection. Some anthropologists believe this is where the origins of Stockholm syndrome reside.

At the core of this anthropological explanation is the supposed biological tendency to surrender found in women. There is a theory that when faced with extremely dangerous situations, some women will submit to the authority of others. It is thought that when women are trapped by those with more physical strength than them, they do so because they will be unable to defeat their tormentors and instead try to find a way to appease them.

Some psychological research has confirmed this notion as women generally report greater levels of anxiety than men. There is also some evidence for this theory in neurological research, which has shown women produce less testosterone than men, an important hormone for strength building.

However, there is much criticism of this theory. Many psychologists do not believe that the behavior of kidnapped women living in hunter-gatherer societies can be compared to the sort of bonds formed by abuse victims in developed countries. These women have not grown up in cultures where kidnapping or violence against women is the norm, but they manage to bond regardless. Contrary to this theory, males are also known to develop Stockholm syndrome.

Another popular line of thinking tries to link Stockholm syndrome to post traumatic stress disorder. Many persons with PTSD have symptoms that resemble Stockholm syndrome. They suffer for years at the hand of parents, husbands, boyfriends, and authority figures that abuse them mercilessly. In order to cope with the trauma, they will sometimes develop positive attitudes towards the person who abused them.

Some psychologists believe that the issues seen in Stockholm syndrome are best understood as a way to respond to the sort of trauma that is simply far too common among PTSD sufferers. They learn to admire or love the people who abuse them because it prevents excessive abuse and may allow them a way out of their situation. This line of thinking has some support, but there are some experts, particularly those who work in neuroendocrinology, who doubt this. Stockholm syndrome patients do not seem to have the same hormone profile of PTSD sufferers. For instance, they do not appear to have the pathologically low cortisol levels often observed.

Stockholm Syndrome Treatments

Treating the victim of Stockholm syndrome can be incredibly difficult. Most patients do not seem to think of their captors as hostile and this often makes them hesitant to accept any treatment. Therapists must be very careful when treating patients in order to make sure that they don’t resist or make efforts to fight against suggestions. The recovery process is a long one and full of bumps.

The first step in the process of rehabilitating the victims is separating them from their abusers. In kidnapping cases, this is easily done, but it can prove difficult for patients involved in relationships with their abusers. Wives and girlfriends do not tend to leave the men who beat them or go back to these men after a period of separation. Therapists must isolate the patient immediately after an episode of abuse in order to begin treatment.

Once the patient is isolated from their abuser, the therapist will begin the long and difficult process of deprogramming the victim. The victim’s deprogramming will vary according to the case, but there is always a focus on making sure the victim understands that they were in fact abused and that their experience is not something to accept. For instance, if a woman had recently left a husband who beats her, the therapist would tell she does not have to put up with that abuse.

Victims often internalize the attitudes of the people who abuse them and may have low self-esteem as a result. The therapist must elevate the victim in order to get them to understand they are their own person. This may include finding ways to help the patient find employment or housing in order to escape the situation they were in. Dispelling the myths that may have been given to the patient is important. The act of taking back their sense of control over their lives is paramount to a successful recovery.

Therapy is very effective in helping patients cope with the aftermath, but there are times when even the best therapist is simply not up for the task. This is where medication is often used in order to help the victim transition back into a healthy life. Common prescriptions given to patients include anxiolytics, drugs intended to reduce anxiety, antidepressants, and antipsychotics, a class of medicines used for those suffering from psychosis and similar disorders. The medications can vary in effectiveness and may produce unwanted side effects. Caution is needed in order to prevent addiction or other complications from arising.

Stockholm Syndrome Prevention

Preventing Stockholm syndrome is even more difficult than treating it. Some persons are more susceptible to Stockholm syndrome than others, but the most important factors are those related to the specific circumstances of the patient. The prevention of Stockholm syndrome requires considerable resources and manpower in order to execute.

Many cases of Stockholm syndrome are the result of domestic abuse. Therefore, preventing domestic abuse will do quite a bit to prevent Stockholm syndrome. Many cities have women’s shelters intended to help women find some refuge from abuse, but resources are limited and difficult to acquire.

Domestic violence is often unreported, so many potential patients will not receive any treatment. Better reporting methods are needed in order to help these patients.

The most severe cases of Stockholm syndrome are typically found in kidnapping and rape victims. Unexpectedly, they have suffered as a result of a complete stranger and can’t overpower the abuse. Although much effort can be put towards trying to end rape and other forms of sexual assault, it simply means nothing when the person has already been victimized.

To help those who are already affected by trauma, there is a need to make sure the victim does not begin to sympathize with the assailant. A common way to go about preventing this is to give the patient self-empowerment. When they realize they do not need to put up with the situation at hand, they are more likely to realize their victimizer is simply an abuser.

Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2017
Last Updated:
November 22, 2017
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