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Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological condition in which an individual, when kidnapped, develops a feeling of trust and affection towards their captors or hostages. The victim becomes emotionally attached to the kidnapper, and both are likely to spend intimate time together. This psychological alliance is generally considered unreasonable as per the risk and danger endured by the victim.

Hostage victims are more likely to develop an empathic relationship with their captor when the captor shows their human side, offers kindness, or shows guilt. The captor may see the human side of their kidnapper and understand the desperation to which they have been driven.

It was the hostages’ fault. They did everything I told them to. If they hadn’t, I might not be here now. Why didn’t any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other.” Jan-Erik Olsson

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Stockholm syndrome is not included as a recognised mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The syndrome is very rare and very few cases have been reported to date. According to the Hostage Barricade Database System of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, only 5% or less kidnapping victims observe Stockholm syndrome.

It was in 1973 when the term “Stockholm syndrome” first appeared in the media. It was a bank robbery case in Stockholm, Sweden. The robbers took four hostages who, after being released, refused to testify against them in court. The hostages defended their captors in court and showed sympathetic sentiments towards them. Since then, Stockholm syndrome appeared as a paradoxical issue before the psychologist community.

And it’s hard to hate someone once you understand them.”
― Lucy Christopher, Stolen: A Letter to My Captor

There are four key characterizations of the syndrome including:

  • Positive feelings of the hostages towards their captors
  • No past relationship between the captor and the victim
  • Hostage refusing to help the police forces and other authorities during the investigation
  • Hostage ceasing to perceive the captor as a threat

The condition imposes many physical and psychological effects on the victim. For example, some cognitive inconveniences include:

  • A sense of confusion
  • Blurred memory
  • Lack of fear and aggression
  • Delusions and flashbacks
  • Temporary anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Irritability and cautiousness

The physical effects associated with the syndrome include restricted eating, social gatherings, and sleeping. The person may think of the captor and the incident for days and may not want to meet new people for a time. The extent of the condition determines the time for the symptoms to last.

When there is inconsistency in belief and action (such as being violated by someone who is supposed to love you), our mind has to make an adjustment so that thought and action are aligned. So sometimes the adjustment that the mind makes is for the victim to bring her or his behavior in line with the violator, since the violator cannot be controlled by the victim. Our greatest source of survival is to adapt to our environment. So, increasing emotional intimacy with a person who is forcing physical intimacy makes sense in our minds. It resolves cognitive dissonance.”
― Rosenna Bakari, Tree Leaves: Breaking The Fall Of The Loud Silence

The recommended treatment for the condition is psychological counseling. If left untreated, the patient may develop serious mental illnesses like PTSD, anxiety, and depression. In case of serious issues, long-term psychotherapy can help with a speedy recovery. Psychologists can help the victim with coping mechanisms and inculcate positive emotions. Some experts suggest that Stockholm syndrome can itself be a coping mechanism. The victims may develop sympathy towards the kidnapper to neutralise their feelings of fear and terror. They might be trying to fight the situation with peace and not wanting to feel terrified.

The powerful, if they carry oppression beyond a certain point, necessarily end by making themselves adored by their slaves. For the thought of being under absolute compulsion, the plaything of another, is unendurable for a human being. Hence, if every way of escape from the constraint is taken from him, there is nothing left for him to do but to persuade himself that he does the things he is forced to do willingly, that is to say, to substitute devotion for obedience. … It is by this twist that slavery debases the soul: this devotion is in fact based on a lie, since the reasons for it cannot bear investigation. … Moreover, the master is deceived too by the fallacy of devotion.

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (1972), pp. 142-143

Stockholm syndrome is a very controversial “illness”. It is highly doubted as to its legitimacy. Moreover, the condition describes the reactions of some victims of abuse as well. Apart from kidnapping and hostage-taking, similar concerned attitudes have been observed in some victims of terror, human trafficking, sexual abuse, and religious or political oppression.

Stockholm Syndrome and Hypnosis

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