Stockholm syndrome refers to a group of psychological symptoms that occur in some persons in a captive or hostage situation. The term takes its name from a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 1973. The robber took four employees of the bank (three women and one man) into the vault with him and kept them hostage for 131 hours. After the employees were finally released, they appeared to have formed a paradoxical emotional bond with their captor; they told reporters that they saw the police as their enemy rather than the bank robber, and that they had positive feelings toward the criminal. Stockholm syndrome’s significance arises because it is based in a paradox, as captives’ sentiments for their captors are the opposite of the fear and disdain an on looker may expect to see as a result of trauma. The syndrome was first named by Nils Bejerot (1921–1988), a medical professor who specialized in addiction research and served as a psychiatric consultant to the Swedish police during the standoff at the bank. Stockholm syndrome is considered a “contested illness,” due to many law enforcement officers’ doubt about the legitimacy of the condition. Stockholm syndrome is also known as Helsinki syndrome or referred to as Survival Identification Syndrome, Capture Bonding, Terror Bonding and Traumatic Bonding. 

Description

Stockholm syndrome is considered a complex reaction to a frightening situation, and experts do not agree completely on all of its characteristic features or on the factors that make some people more susceptible than others to developing it. One reason for the disagreement is that it would be unethical to test theories about the syndrome by experimenting on human beings. The data for understanding the syndrome are derived from actual hostage situations since 1973 that differ considerably from one another in terms of location, number of people involved, and time frame. Another source of disagreement concerns the extent to which the syndrome can be used to explain other historical phenomena or more commonplace types of abusive relationships. Many researchers believe that Stockholm syndrome helps to explain certain behaviors of survivors of World War II concentration camps; members of religious cults; battered wives; incest survivors; and physically or emotionally abused children as well as persons taken hostage by criminals or terrorists.
Most experts, however, agree that Stockholm syndrome has three central characteristics:
  • The hostages have negative feelings about the police or other authorities.
  • The hostages have positive feelings toward their captor(s).
  • The captors develop positive feelings toward the hostages.

Causes & symptoms

Stockholm syndrome does not affect all hostages (or persons in comparable situations); in fact, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) study of over 1200 hostage-taking incidents found that 92% of the hostages did not develop Stockholm syndrome. FBI researchers then interviewed flight attendants who had been taken hostage during airplane hijackings, and concluded that three factors are necessary for the syndrome to develop:

  • The crisis situation lasts for several days or longer.
  • The hostage takers remain in contact with the hostages; that is, the hostages are not placed in a separate room.
  • The hostage takers show some kindness toward the hostages or at least refrain from harming them. Hostages abused by captors typically feel anger toward them and do not usually develop the syndrome.
In addition, people who often feel helpless in other stressful life situations or are willing to do anything in order to survive seem to be more susceptible to developing Stockholm syndrome if they are taken hostage.
People with Stockholm syndrome report the same symptoms as those diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): insomnia, nightmares, general irritability, difficulty concentrating, being easily startled, feelings of unreality or confusion, inability to enjoy previously pleasurable experiences, increased distrust of others, and flashbacks.

Diagnosis

Stockholm syndrome is a descriptive term for a pattern of coping with a traumatic situation rather than a diagnostic category. Most psychiatrists would use the diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder or post traumatic stress disorder when evaluating a person with Stockholm syndrome.

Treatment

Treatment of Stockholm syndrome is the same as for PTSD, most commonly a combination of medications for short-term sleep disturbances and psychotherapy for the longer-term symptoms.

 Prognosis

The prognosis for recovery from Stockholm syndrome is generally good, but the length of treatment needed depends on several variables. These include the nature of the hostage situation; the length of time the crisis lasted, and the individual patient’s general coping style and previous experience(s) of trauma.

Prevention

Prevention of Stockholm syndrome at the level of the larger society includes further development of crisis intervention skills on the part of law enforcement as well as strategies to prevent kidnapping or hostage-taking incidents in the first place. Prevention at the individual level is difficult as of the early 2000s because researchers have not been able to identify all the factors that may place some persons at greater risk than others; in addition, they disagree on the specific psychological mechanisms involved in Stockholm syndrome. Some regard the syndrome as a form of regression (return to childish patterns of thought or action) while others explain it in terms of emotional paralysis (“frozen fright”) or identification with the aggressor.

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