Stockholm Syndrome

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Definition

Stockholm syndrome refers to a group of psychological symptoms that occur in some persons in a captive or hostage situation. It has received considerable media publicity in recent years because it has been used to explain the behaviour of such well known kidnapping victims as Patti Hearst (1974) and Elizabeth Smart (2002). The term takes its name from a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 1973. The robber took four employees from 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 towards the criminal. The syndrome was first named by Nils Bejerot (1921-1988) a medical professor who specialised in addiction research and served as a psychiatric consultant during the standoff at the bank. Stockholm syndrome is known as Survival Identification Syndrome.

Description

Stockholm Syndrome is considered a complex reaction to a frightening situation, and experts do not agree completely on all its characteristic features or on the factors that make someone 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 the Stockholm Syndrome helps to explain certain behaviours of survivors of WW2 concentration camps, members of religious cults, battered wives, incest survivors, and physically or emotionally abused children as well as people taken hostage by criminals or terrorists.

Most experts agree, however, that Stockholm Syndrome has three central characteristics.

  1. The hostages have negative feelings about the police or other authorities
  2. The hostages have positive feelings towards their captor(s).
  3. The captors develop positive feelings towards their hostage(s).

 

Causes and 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. Hostagesabused 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 surviveseem 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 posttraumatic stress disorder(PTSD): insomnia, nightmares, general irritability, difficulty concentrating, being easily startled, feelings of unreality orconfusion, 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 diagnosticcategory. Most psychiatrists would use the diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder or posttraumatic stress disorderwhen 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.

Key terms

Coping — In psychology, a term that refers to a person’s patterns of response to stress. Some patterns of coping maylower a person’s risk of developing Stockholm syndrome in a hostage situation.

Flashback —

The remergence of a traumatic memory as a vivid recollection of sounds, images, and sensationsassociated with the trauma. The person having the flashback typically feels as if they are reliving the event. Flashbackswere first described by doctors treating combat veterans of World War I (1914–1918).

Identification with an aggressor — In psychology, an unconscious process in which a person adopts the perspectiveor behavior patterns of a captor or abuser. Some researchers consider it a partial explanation of Stockholm syndrome.

Regression — In psychology, a return to earlier, usually childish or infantile, patterns of thought or behavior.

Syndrome — A set of symptoms that occur together.

Prognosis

The prognosis for recovery from Stockholm syndrome is generally good, but the length of treatment needed depends onseveral variables. These include the nature of the hostage situation; the length of time the crisis lasted, and theindividual 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 interventionskills on the part of law enforcement as well as strategies to prevent kidnapping or hostage-taking incidents in the firstplace. Prevention at the individual level is difficult as of the early 2000s because researchers have not been able toidentify all the factors that may place some persons at greater risk than others; in addition, they disagree on the specificpsychological mechanisms involved in Stockholm syndrome. Some regard the syndrome as a form of regression (returnto childish patterns of thought or action) while others explain it in terms of emotional paralysis (“frozen fright”) oridentification with the aggressor.

Resources

Books

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, text revision.Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Graham, Dee L. R., with Edna I. Rawlings and Roberta K. Rigsby. Loving to Survive, Chapter 1, “Love Thine Enemy:Hostages and Classic Stockholm Syndrome.” New York and London: New York University Press, 1994.

Herman, Judith, MD. Trauma and Recovery, 2nd ed., revised. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Chapter 4, “Captivity,” isparticularly helpful in understanding Stockholm syndrome.

Periodicals

Bejerot, Nils. “The Six-Day War in Stockholm.” New Scientist 61 (1974): 486-487.

Fuselier, G. Dwayne, PhD. “Placing the Stockholm Syndrome in Perspective.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (July1999): 23-26.

Grady, Denise. “Experts Look to Stockholm Syndrome on Why Girl Stayed.” International Herald Tribune, 17 March2003. A newspaper article about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case.

 

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About greencentre

Non grant supported hence independent scientist, green activist, writer and forest planter.
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