Stockholm syndrome means a psychological response associated with crimes involving an abuser and a victim, in which a captor and a hostage as linked in kidnapping cases are the most common. It is not recognized as a mental condition but rather has been ascribed by experts to be an adaptive mechanism of the mind when the physical and psychological well-being of an individual is threatened, and in some instances is developed from the survival tactics of a victim in which the victim identifies with the captor to avoid further harm and secure their safety. This response, not limited to just hostages has also been noted in other kinds of abusive events such as abusive or controlling relationships, child abuse, sex trafficking, etc. as well as in social lower animals such as dogs.

This condition is not constant in every abuse case, and the cause for its occurrence in the first place is not clear.

So, What is Stockholm Syndrome? Stockholm syndrome is diagnosed when victims of abuse or kidnap become emotionally entwined with their captors, hence rather than having the expected feeling of hatred, anger or fear, have understanding, feelings of sympathy or other positive feelings towards the captor.

This seems to be as a result of the close contact between the captive and captor in a period of days, weeks, months or even years. The bonding associates this syndrome with its inverse, Lima syndrome, in which the captor experiences empathy or has second thoughts towards the hostage, leading to kind treatment and less harm from the abuser.

Studies of several abuse cases shows with evidence that people who are in traumatic situations together are likely to form strong bonds with one another even if the bond is misplaced onto the captor. Theories propose that captives are highly emotionally charged which could be a major cause of the trauma bonding. Therefore, due to the emotional need, at every little show of kindness even if the captor is unkind most of the time, the hostage holds unto the kindness as a hope of the captor being a kind person, which in turn could relay a false message to the brain as the captor not being an ‘entirely bad’ person.

Psychiatrists have stated that the development of this syndrome could be due to the isolation of the victim from the outside world and the gratitude felt when the threat of death is removed.

Why is it called Stockholm syndrome?

This response has been in existence as far back as people have been faced with traumatic experiences but was given a name only in 1973 by Criminologist and Psychiatrist Nils Bejerot after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. The infamous bank robbery involved 4 employees of the bank being held hostage by the two robbers, Olsson and Olofsson in the six days stand-off with the police before they were released. It was discovered after their release that the four hostages had strongly bonded emotionally with their captors when they refused to testify against them but instead, went ahead to get lawyers to defend their apprehenders.

In their report, they said that the men had treated them nicely and didn’t invoke any physical harm on them.

Subsequently, the term has been used to define conditions in which captives connect emotionally with their captors.

This is the origin of Stockholm Syndrome.

Stockholm syndrome Examples

After 1973, several incidences of Stockholm syndrome have been recorded.  One of the epic cases usually associated with the syndrome is that of the granddaughter of businessman William Randolph Hearst, Patricia Hearst who was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberian Army (SLA). Patricia during her captivity renounced her family name and adopted a new name. 10 weeks after her release, she was arrested alongside her captors in a bank robbery.

Other Stockholm Syndrome incident examples are:

  • 10 years old Natascha Kampusch who was kidnapped by Wolfgang Priklopil in 1988 and kept hostage for more than 8 years in a dark, insulated underground cellar. Upon her escape, it was reported that Natascha had wept inconsolably hearing the news of Priklopil’s death by suicide. During the time of her captivity, she said he had physically abused her as well as threatened to kill her but that he had been kind to her a few times. Her case wasn’t just that of a captor and hostage but also as seen in child abuse.
  • The hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985, masterminded by Imad Mugniyah in which the hostages were held for more than two weeks. Some of the hostages were reported to be sympathetic towards the demand of the captors.

Other situations that has been associated with Stockholm syndrome includes:

  • Abusive relationships: Domestic Stockholm syndrome is prevalent in romantic relationships which witnesses continual abuse. In this, the victimized partner chooses to focus on the periodic kindness shown by the abusive partner rather than the abuse. In most cases, the abusive partner uses threats and other means of manipulation to convince the abused partner that the abuse is an ‘indication of their love’, thereby ensuring they stay in the relationship. Even when given the opportunity to leave the relationship, most abused partners see it rather as disloyalty to the love they share.
  • Sex trafficking: in a study carried out by Karen and Hasen in 2018 to establish if the syndrome developed in sex workers that had been trafficked. The narrative of the reviews from the research showed that some of the women not only perceived kindness from the trafficker and clients but stated that they had at a time hoped to start a family with the trafficker or client.

Signs of Stockholm syndrome

The major signs and symptoms of Stockholm syndrome are the confusing feelings of love and empathy that the victim develops towards the abuser. Other responses that have been observed from those with this syndrome include.

  1. The desire to protect and save their captor; this occurs when the victims begin to try to understand the actions of the captor and even take pity on them,
  2. Reasoning with the causes, goals, and perspectives of the captor,
  3. Believing in the good and humanity of the captor rather than seeing the harm inflicted nor them as a threat,
  4. Relating with and having positive feelings for the captor(s) even after their release,
  5. Having negative feelings towards the police, families, and friends who may try to rescue them as being unfair in judgment towards their captor.
  6. Placing the interest of their captors above theirs even after their release.

Signs of Stockholm syndrome could also be physical and psychological, with the effect being dependent on the severity of the experience. These could range from emotional, social, or physical including constant feelings of :

  • Confusion,
  • Denial
  • Helplessness
  • Aggression
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Extreme cautiousness
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares

and other physical and mental health conditions resulting from abuse. Symptoms similar to those with PTSD such as panic disorder and distrust have been reported as well.

In other cases, victims of this syndrome after release from their captivity are reported to have low self-esteem and confidence amongst others which could be attributed to their previous dependence on their captors.

How To Break Stockholm Syndrome?

A major concern in the treatment of Stockholm syndrome is the fact that most victims that developed it do not accept that it is an issue that requires to be attended to.

Natascha Kampusch when questioned on how she felt about the death of her captor in an interview with Guardian news said,

“I find it natural that you would adapt yourself to identify with your kidnapper, especially if you spend a great deal of time with them.”

So, how do you break Stockholm syndrome? As an unrecognized mental condition, there’s no official treatment for the syndrome but psychotherapy and medication can be used to alleviate the symptoms associated with the condition.


Though it is not acknowledged as a mental condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) but regarded as merely a response to trauma and emotional abuse, the effects of Stockholm syndrome could last for a lifetime and affect future relationships with the victims venture into, hence appropriate treatment is required to help the victim recover and move forward.

The psychology behind this response is still not well understood and hence, further studies and research are necessary.