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  • Asha M. Creary

Stockholm Syndrome

As this month begins, we would like to highlight Stockholm syndrome and its link to mental health. Stockholm syndrome is the psychological response. It occurs when hostages or abuse victims’ bond with their captors or abusers. This psychological connection develops over the course of the days, weeks, months, or even years of captivity or abuse. We will highlight the causes, symptoms, examples of such experiences and ways to prevent this type of psychological response.


Various episodes of Stockholm syndrome have more than likely occurred for many decades and centuries prior to 1973. It was given a name following an incident that occurred in Sweden. Two men held four people hostage for six days following a bank robbery in Stockholm Sweden. Once the hostages were released, they refused to testify against the individuals who held them captive and began raising money for their defense. This disorder is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a manual used by mental health experts and specialists to diagnose mental health disorders.


Symptoms of Stockholm syndrome are described as the following:

  • Victim develops positive feelings toward the person keeping them captive or abusing them

  • Victim develops negative feelings toward authority figures, police or anyone else who might be trying to help them get away from their abuser or captor. They may even refuse to cooperate against their abuser or captor

  • Victim begins to perceive their abuser or captor’s humanity and believe they have the same goals and values

Those who develop Stockholm syndrome are more likely to experience the following post the experience that triggered the reaction. These include nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks, tendency to be easily startled, confusion and difficulty trusting others. From a psychological lens, this occurrence can be understood as a survival mechanism. Some experts suggest that those who are in a hostile situation to act as if they are experiencing Stockholm syndrome to increase their chances of survival.


Example of a high-profile case of Stockholm Syndrome


In 1933, Mary McElroy was held at gunpoint by four men, hey chained her to the walls an abandoned farmhouse and demanded ransom from her family. When released, she struggled to name her captors in their trail and also publicly expressed sympathy for them.


Experiences of Stockholm Syndrome in Today’s Society

In today’s society many individuals who struggle with feelings associated with Stockholm syndrome may not realize that they are in a situation that is causing them to develop maladaptive thought patterns. This includes the following:

  • Abusive relationships- in abusive relationships many individuals develop emotional attachments to their abusers, which in can lead to prolonged abuse years following.

  • Child abuse- most abusers threaten their victims with harm or even death. Children or adolescents oftentimes perceive their kindness for a genuine feeling. They may often try to please them to reduce instances of abuse.

  • Sex/Human trafficking- many victims who experience trafficking frequently relies on their abusers for necessities like food, water and shelter. When abusers provide the basic necessities a victim may develop positive feelings toward their abuser. They are also more likely to retaliate or believe that they may have to protect their abuser.

  • Sports related coaching- individuals who are involved in sports build skills and relationships. Some of those relationship may be negative or harsh. Some traditional harsh coping mechanisms can become abusive. Athletes typically tell themselves that their coach’s behavior is for their own good and will empathize of continue to allow the negative comments or even over exercising when they do not follow certain instructions. There is a difference between running plays for fidelity vs running plays or over exercising because the team made me mad.


Treating Stockholm Syndrome


Treating Stockholm syndrome is like treating any other diagnosable mental illness or life stressor. Someone struggling to reduce the feelings associated with Stockholm syndrome can seek counseling, medication management and/or find other non-traditional modalities to support with their concerns. Cognitive Therapy, EMDR and/or ECT is highly recommended and suggested along with a provider who is well trained on trauma bonding.


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