Medically reviewed by Elle Markman, PsyD, MPH
Stockholm syndrome occurs when a person in captivity becomes emotionally attached to their captor as a coping mechanism to get through life-threatening situations. The name derives from an incident in 1973. After a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, a woman became so bonded to her captor that she ended her marriage engagement and was loyal to the captor while he was in prison.
Signs of this dynamic include self-blame when mistreated; sympathy and other positive feelings toward a captor or abuser; feeling negatively toward police, rescuers, or people trying to help; and feeling anxious or on edge.
Learn about Stockholm syndrome, its dynamics, why it happens, how to get support, and more.
Defining Stockholm Syndrome
Stockholm syndrome happens when a person becomes emotionally attached or loyal to the person holding them captive or abusing them. This affects about 8% of people who are in hostage situations.
Stockholm syndrome was initially used to describe relationships between captors and hostages. However, it has expanded to include the relationships between abused people and those who abuse them.
Signs of Stockholm Syndrome
It may be difficult for someone with Stockholm syndrome to recognize the signs in themselves while being held hostage or in an abusive relationship. Signs that may indicate others are in an abusive situation include:
They feel an affinity toward their captor and support and defend their behavior.
They begin to pity their captor and feel that they share similar goals.
They feel inclined to "save" their captor.
They make little to no effort to escape.
They feel negatively toward anyone (family, friends, police, etc.) who tries to remove them from the hostage or abusive situation.
To cope with this internal conflict, people with Stockholm syndrome and other forms of trauma create their own version of their experience that can be more sympathetic to the person holding them captive or abusing them. This is a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance happens when a person behaves in a way that goes against their core beliefs. For example, they may believe stealing is wrong and don't want to do it but routinely shoplift. This leads to conflicted thoughts and feelings that can motivate changes in beliefs or behaviors.
Examples of Stockholm Syndrome Dynamics
Beyond the relationship between a captor and a hostage, Stockholm syndrome can happen in any relationship that involves abuse. There is a link between Stockholm syndrome and violence against women.
About one-third of women have experienced violence from an intimate partner, and over two-thirds of those women have left and returned to that partner at least once. Women who are sensitive to their partners' feelings and needs are more likely to return than those who are not.
Similarly, children abused by their parents often feel attached and loyal to them, which can continue into adulthood. Stockholm syndrome can also happen in sports, with player and coach relationships, and at work, between employees and employers, among other relationships.
Understanding Why Stockholm Syndrome Develops
When people experience trauma and abuse, the sympathetic nervous system (part of the body responsible for the stress response) responds to possible dangers. Typical responses include fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response to cope with stressful situations or danger.
A person experiencing Stockholm syndrome speaks or acts in a way that helps neutralize the intense emotions and behaviors of someone abusing or holding them captive. This can de-escalate the situation and stop or prevent abuse from continuing.
Domestic Abuse Hotline
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse from an intimate partner, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) for assistance. If the situation is an emergency and you are in immediate danger, call 911.
How to Process Stockholm Syndrome Abuse
While loyalty and affection for captors or abusers may feel genuine to the person being abused, it is a trauma response from the sympathetic nervous system, and the captor or abuser may not have positive feelings for the person being held hostage or abused.
It is essential to seek the support of a healthcare provider, such as a therapist or psychologist, if you are in or have recently left an abusive or hostage situation. Stockholm syndrome is a trauma response, so evidence-based therapeutic treatments are the best first line of treatment.
Effective therapeutic treatments include:
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Other ways of processing may include:
Other forms of talk therapy
Connecting in safe relationships with trusted friends and family
You may have to try different strategies to find the most effective way to cope while adjusting to life after experiencing trauma.
Related: Understanding Relationship Trauma
Mental Health Support and Resources
Many health and support resources are available to people who are experiencing or have experienced a hostage situation or abuse. Depending on the situation, the first step may be contacting emergency response services, such as a local police department or dialing 911.
Available resources for mental health support, abuse, and Stockholm syndrome recovery include:
The American Psychological Association has an online search tool to find a psychologist.
Healthcare providers at hospitals, primary care offices, or clinics can offer mental health support and treatment.
DomesticShelters.org offers an online search engine to find shelters near you.
Hostage US offers mental and physical health resources for hostages and their families.
Local emergency response services such as police, first responders, or 911.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers mental health support and education.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline and online resources support survivors of domestic violence.
Stockholm syndrome happens when the sympathetic nervous system is activated in response to a hostage situation, abuse, or other stressor. A person being held captive or abused may feel positive feelings toward the captor or abuser, form an attachment, and be loyal to them as a coping mechanism to a life-threatening situation. This defense is similar to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses.
If you or someone you know is experiencing Stockholm syndrome, help is available. Call a domestic violence hotline, seek out shelters, or see a healthcare provider for additional resources and support.
Read the original article on Verywell Health.