Stockholm syndrome is an emotional response. It happens to some abuse and hostage victims when they have positive feelings toward an abuser or captor.
What Is Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome isn’t a psychological diagnosis. Instead, it is a way of understanding the emotional response some people have towards a captor or abuser.
Sometimes people who are held prisoner or are subject to abuse can have feelings of sympathy or other positive feelings toward the captor. This seems to happen over days, weeks, months, or years of captivity and close contact to the captor.
A bond can grow between the victim and the captor. This can lead to kind treatment and less harm from the abuser as they might also create a positive bond with their victims.
Someone who has Stockholm syndrome might have confusing feelings toward the abuser, including:
- Desire to protect them
Stockholm syndrome might also cause the hostage to have negative feelings toward the police or anyone who might try to attempt a rescue.
People have likely experienced this syndrome for a long time, but it was first named in 1973 by Nils Bejerot, a criminologist in Stockholm, Sweden. He used the term to explain the unexpected reaction hostages of a bank raid had toward their captor.
Despite being held against their will in a life-threatening situation, these individuals made positive relationships with their captors. They even helped them pay for their lawyers after they were caught.
What are the symptoms?
Stockholm syndrome is recognized by three distinct events or “symptoms.”
Symptoms of Stockholm syndrome
- The victim develops positive feelings toward the person holding them captive or abusing them.
- The victim develops negative feelings toward police, authority figures, or anyone who might be trying to help them get away from their captor. They may even refuse to cooperate against their captor.
- The victim begins to perceive their captor’s humanity and believe they have the same goals and values.
These feelings typically happen because of the emotional and highly charged situation that occurs during a hostage situation or abuse cycle.
For example, people who are kidnapped or taken hostage often feel threatened by their captor, but they are also highly reliant on them for survival. If the kidnapper or abuser shows them some kindness, they may begin to feel positive feelings toward their captor for this “compassion.”
Over time, that perception begins to reshape and skew how they view the person keeping them hostage or abusing them.
What is the history?
The term originated following a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. During the robbery, bank robbers held four bank employees captive in a vault for more than five days. While in captivity, the hostages bonded with their captors, mostly due to the small acts of perceived kindness on the part of the abductors. Eventually, the captives began to fear the police more than they feared the bank robbers and became resistant to the idea of rescue.
The behavior of the captives confused the police and the general public as well as the captives themselves. Psychiatrists likened the reaction to the shell shock (the term that was used to describe what is now known as posttraumatic stress) experienced by soldiers in war and explained that the captives felt grateful to their abductors, rather than to the police, for sparing them from death.
Examples of Stockholm syndrome
Several famous kidnappings have resulted in high profile episodes of Stockholm syndrome including those listed below.
Mary McElroy (1933)
Four decades before the Normalmstorg bank robbery, four men kidnapped Mary McElroy. The kidnappers released her after receiving the $30,000 ransom they had demanded.
Although Mary McElroy agreed that her captors should receive punishment, she sympathized with them and even visited them in prison.
Patty Hearst (1974)
Shortly after the Stockholm incident, members of a left-wing militant group called the United Federated Forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped 19-year-old Patty Hearst from her apartment in Berkeley, California.
Twelve days after the kidnapping, Hearst was involved in a bank robbery alongside members of the SLA. According to Hearst, the SLA had brainwashed her and forced her to join them.
The FBI arrested Hearst on September 18, 1975, 18 months after her kidnapping. Hearst received a 7-year prison sentence. President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979, and she eventually received a pardon.
Natascha Kampush (1998)
In 1998, Wolfgang Priklopil kidnapped 10-year-old Natascha Kampush and isolated her in a cellar for more than 8 years. Priklopil beat her and threatened her life; he also bought her gifts and fed and bathed her. Kampush cried after hearing that Prikolpil had died by suicide.
Kampush tried to explain her relationship with Priklopil to interviewers, but they wrote her off, claiming she had Stockholm syndrome. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Kampush said, “I find it very natural that you would adapt yourself to identify with your kidnapper… Especially if you spend a great deal of time with that person.”
Stockholm syndrome in today’s society
While Stockholm syndrome is commonly associated with a hostage or kidnapping situation, it can actually apply to several other circumstances and relationships.
Stockholm syndrome may also arise in these situations
- Abusive relationships. ResearchTrusted Source has shown that abused individuals may develop emotional attachments to their abuser. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, as well as incest, can last for years. Over this time, a person may develop positive feelings or sympathy for the person abusing them.
- Child abuse. Abusers frequently threaten their victims with harm, even death. Victims may try to avoid upsetting their abuser by being compliant. Abusers may also show kindness that could be perceived as a genuine feeling. This may further confuse the child and lead to them not understanding the negative nature of the relationship.
- Sex trafficking trade. Individuals who are trafficked often rely on their abusers for necessities, like food and water. When the abusers provide that, the victim may begin to develop positive feelingsTrusted Source toward their abuser. They may also resist cooperating with police for fear of retaliation or thinking they have to protect their abusers to protect themselves.
- Sports coaching. Being involved in sports is a great way for people to build skills and relationships. Unfortunately, some of those relationships may ultimately be negative. Harsh coaching techniques can even become abusive. The athlete may tell themselves their coach’s behavior is for their own good, and this, according to a 2018 study, can ultimately become a form of Stockholm syndrome.
Impact of Stockholm Syndrome on Health
Stockholm syndrome isn’t listed as a formal mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). People who have this syndrome seem to have some other common symptoms, though:
- Embarrassment about their emotions toward an abuser
- Difficulty trusting others
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
- Startling easily
After abuse or being held captive, they might also have many other symptoms, including:
- Social withdrawal
- Chronic feeling of tension
- Feelings of emptiness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Learned helplessness
- Excessive dependence
- Loss of interest in activities
Getting back into daily life and adjusting after trauma can be difficult. It can be very hard for victims to talk about their experience as it can re-traumatize them.
If you feel you have Stockholm syndrome or know someone who might, you should speak to a therapist. Therapy can help you through recovery, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
A therapist can also help you learn coping mechanisms and help you process the way you feel. They can help you reassign attitudes and emotions to understand that this is a survival mechanism you used to get through an experience.
Stockholm syndrome is an unrecognized psychological disorder and does not have a standardized definition. As a result, there are no official treatment recommendations for it.
However, psychotherapy and medication can help relieve issues associated with trauma recovery, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
People can work with licensed psychologists and psychiatrists. A psychiatrist can prescribe medications that may help alleviate mood disorder symptoms.
Psychologists and licensed mental health counselors can help people develop strategies and tools to use when trying to understand and work through their experiences.
Stockholm syndrome is a rare psychological reaction to captivity and, in some instances, abuse. Feelings of fear, terror, and anger towards a captor or abuser may seem more realistic to most people.
However, in extreme situations, such as kidnapping, a person may develop positive feelings towards the captor as a coping mechanism when they feel that their physical and mental well-being is at stake.
While experts do not officially recognize Stockholm syndrome as a mental health disorder, people who have been abused, trafficked, or kidnapped may experience it. People who have Stockholm syndrome may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
Proper treatment can help improve a person’s recovery and help them move forward.
- Alexander DA, et al. (2009). Kidnapping and hostage-taking: a review of effects, coping and resilience. DOI:
- Bachand C, et al. (2018). Stockholm syndrome in athletics: a paradox. DOI:
- Cantor, et al. (2007). Traumatic entrapment, appeasement and complex post-traumatic stress disorder: evolutionary perspectives of hostage reactions, domestic abuse and the Stockholm syndrome.
- Graham DL, et al. (1995). A scale for identifying “Stockholm syndrome” reactions in young dating women: factor structure, reliability, and validity.
- Graham DLR, et al. (1988). Survivors of terror: battered women, hostages, and the Stockholm syndrome (from feminist perspectives on wife abuse.)
- Karan A, et al. (2018). Does the Stockholm syndrome affect female sex workers? The case for a “sonagachi syndrome.” DOI:
- Stockholm syndrome. (n.d.).
- The Stockholm syndrome. (2015).