Stockholm Syndrome: What Is It, Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

March 2022

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that can happen in people who are living under situations of intense stress and danger, such as an abduction, a home arrest, or abuse. In these situations, the victim tends to develop a relationship with the aggressors.

Stockholm syndrome is an unconscious response due to a dangerous situation, which leads the victim to establish an emotional bond with the aggressors in order to feel safe and calm.

This syndrome was first identified in 1973 after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in which the hostages developed friendship with their captors. This bond even led the hostages to visit their captors in prison. These victims also defended their captors, and stated that had not faced any physical or psychological abuse while they were held hostage.

How to identify the syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is not recognized as a psychiatric disease by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Therefore, there is no concrete criteria of symptoms to support diagnosis, as symptoms have yet to be scientifically proven or widely studied.

However, some of the following characteristics can be observed in people who are found in a stressful or tense situations where their life is at risk, such as:

  • Development of positive feelings for the aggressor;
  • Development of negative feelings about the police, authorities or others who are helping the victim to move away from the aggressor;
  • Development of emotional bond and friendship with the aggressor;
  • The belief that the aggressor has the same values ​​and goals in life.

These characteristics are triggered by feelings of insecurity, isolation and/or threat. It is a way for the subconscious to preserve life. However over time, due to the emotional bond created, small acts of kindness by the offenders tend to be amplified by people who are developing this syndrome, which makes them feel more secure and calm about the situation, disregarding the real threat they are under.

What causes it

Stockholm syndrome usually develops in situations that are life-threatening, where there are hostages. Some factors that have been identified to influence the development of this type of syndrome include:

  • Personality type and personal history of the person being held hostage;
  • Need for approval by authority figures such as boss or parents;
  • Time the victim spent with the kidnapper.

People experiencing Stockholm syndrome are often unable to rationalize that they are experiencing it. It is believed that those who have suffered a traumatic experience, such as abusive relationships and sexual abuse in the past, for example, are more prone to develop this syndrome.

Treatment options

There is no specific treatment approach for Stockholm syndrome. However it is important that psychotherapy is offered to the victim, since it can help identify the previous factor that may have led to the development of this mental health disorder. Therapy is often aimed toward treating trauma-related symptoms. 

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Edited by Tua Saude editing team in March 2022. Medical review completed by Dr. Gonzalo Ramirez - General Practitioner and Psychologist in March 2022.

References

  • LOBATO, Bruna Larissa; CARDOSO, Jéssica P.; OLIVEIRA, Gislene S.; MACIEL, Ranyelle F. A Síndrome de Estocolmo: Consequências Sociais e Jurídicas. Tese de Conclusão de Curso, 2014. Universidade Católica de Brasília.
  • SANTOS, ANTONIO D. O Síndrome de Estocolmo, a Narcose Social e a Qualidade da Democracia em Portugal. 2017. Available on: <http://repositorio.ual.pt/bitstream/11144/3403/1/O%20SINDROME%20DE%20ESTOCOLMO.Final.pdf>. Access in 09 Apr 2019
Show more references
  • GÓMEZ, Andrés M. Psicopatología del Síndrome de Estocolmo: Ensayo de un modelo etiológico. Ciencia Policial. Vol 51. 1999
  • Namnyak, M. et al. Stockholm syndrome: psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 4–11, 2008
Medical review:
Dr. Gonzalo Ramirez
General Practitioner and Psychologist
Dr. Ramirez possesses a medical degree from the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP). He also specializes in clinical psychology.