Stockholm Syndrome, When you Become your Worst Nightmare

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P
February 25, 2019

Stockholm syndrome has been referred to as traumatic bonding.  It is a survival strategy involving victims can experience feelings of trust or affection towards their captors in situations of kidnapping or hostage taking. This condition generally develops as a protective mechanism for people to cope with such extreme stress. It is not an identified disorder yet a general description of behaviors of individuals who have been traumatized in such circumstances.  Individuals who develop Stockholm Syndrome will often demonstrate symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, being startled easily, and paranoia. 

stockholm sydrome

How does Stockholm Syndrome develop?

Individuals who are in the following situation can be at risk for demonstrating Stockholm Syndrome:

  • Being a hostage or kidnapping situation with a captor
  • Believe that the captor will kill them
  • Isolation from the outside world
  • Believe that escaping is not possible
  • Feeling relieved or feeling gratitude toward the captor for not killing them
  • Inflating feelings such as kindness and bonding toward the captor
  • Have been in captivity for several days

Victims who have developed Stockholm Syndrome have typically been in extreme isolation resulting in the victim’s responding in a compliant and supportive way in order to survive.  Symptoms can be similar to individuals who have experienced brainwashing, as their sense of reality becomes quite distorted and inaccurate.

The term was developed by Psychiatrist and criminal researcher Nils Bejerot based on events that occurred in Stockholm Sweden. Bejerot identifies this paradoxical phenomenon as a defense mechanism for victims surviving hostage related tramas.  In 1973, there was a bank robbery in Stockholm Sweden during which four hostages were held in captivity for 6 days.   The victims began experiencing feelings of sympathy towards their captors.   After their release, victims described feelings of confusion of why they did not feel more anger towards their captors. They formed emotional attachments with them during their captivity, described fearing the police and after the incident refused to testify against them. Police were also confused by this response, wondering if they were somehow even involved in the robbery.  So even when in harm’s way, the hostages developed in an alliance leading them to even defend the robbers. Months after the incident, they continued to demonstrate loyalty to the robbers and even assisted them in raising funds for their legal criminal representation and visited them in prison.

The situation became an area of interest for researchers and journalists who became curious to see if this was a unique event or a phenomenon that occurs in such traumatic circumstances. Researchers concluded  that such behavior is common for individuals who had experienced similar circumstances of captivity.  This psychological alliance that can develop has been studied in well-known cases over the years. 

At the age of nineteen, Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Several months later, she actively participated in a bank robbery in San Francisco. She recorded messages supporting the SLA group. Hearst and the group were arrested. After the arrest, she halted her support of this radical group. She later shared that she had been found, blindfolded, and held hostage in a locked closet. She also had experienced physical and sexual abuse during her captivity and leading up to the robbery. During her trial, it was proposed that her robbery participation was similar to Stockholm Syndrome, as a subconscious mechanism for survival.

Another incident involved Jaycee Lee Dugard in 1991. The Dugard was abducted as an 11 year old in South Lake Tahoe California. She remained missing until 2009 when she escaped captivity and entered a California police station.   Dugard was held in captivity for 18 years by Phillip and Nancy Garrido. During this time, she was mistreated, sexually abused, and held trapped in a tent in the backyard.   During her time there, she gave birth to two children who were 11 and 15 when she escaped. Despite her extended exposure to suffering, Duguard experience feelings of bonding towards her captors and perhaps bypassed opportunities to escape. 

Natascha Kampush was kidnapped in 2006 in Vienna by Wolfgang Priklopil.  She was kept in captivity in a small cell for over eight years. For the first 6 months of her time, she was locked in a tiny windowless cell. Eventually, she was enter the main house so she could act as a servant.   Eventually, she was able to go into the garden and was even introduced to Prikopil’s business partner. She was subjected  to extreme forms of abuse, including physical beatings, threats to kill her, and being starved of food and nutrition. She eventually did escape and upon discovering this, Prikopil committed suicide. Kampusch also demonstrated behaviors common to individuals with Stockholm Syndrome.  she even cried when learning about his death. She reported in her book “3096 Tage” (“3096 Days”),  she expressed sympathy for her captor, despite her years of suffering and abuse.

Stockholm Syndrome can be described as a paradoxical experience, where the feelings and behaviors seem counterintuitive of what would be a typical response.  The seemingly irrational attachment that can develop is suggested to be an unconscious defense mechanism deep in the human psyche.   A commonality is that the fear and in danger of harm and physical abuse. Victims of domestic violence are a more common example, as battered partners are often resistant to  taking legal action or pressing charges against their abusers.  The victims can become protective and continue to experience feelings of affection towards their abusers.  Other examples of Stockholm Syndrome behaviors are observed in cults, prisoners of concentration camps, toxic relationships, and other brainwashing situations.

In Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Neel Burton explores the science of self-deception.  He describes how individuals use this type of psychological defense mechanism to protect ourselves from painful truths. 

Information gathered from researching incidents describing Stockholm syndrome behaviors can help in future situations addressing and treating individuals who experience such traumatic circumstances.  Understanding these dynamics have helped police officers train and prepare for future hostage situations. Understanding the condition is also helpful in learning how to best navigate and help people in abusive situations.

There is little conclusive research about how to best treat the Stockholm syndrome condition. If someone you know is experiencing such symptoms, it is recommended to seek professional guidance and counsel of how to best handle the situation.

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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