by Kimberly Allen, RN
Stockholm syndrome is in the news again. So exactly what is it and who develops Stockholm syndrome? Stockholm syndrome is considered a group of psychological symptoms that develop in some people that are being held captive or hostage. The term Stockholm syndrome was first used to describe the psychological state of 4 bank tellers that had been held hostage by a bank robber for 131 days in Stockholm, Sweden. However, there is wide disagreement among experts on just what constitutes Stockholm syndrome. There are many reasons for this disagreement, not the least of which is that it is completely unethical to test any of the theories about Stockholm syndrome on humans. Therefore all the data that is used to understand this phenomenon have been obtained from actual hostage situations. The problem is that each situation differs significantly from each other. They involve a variety of locations and time frames as well as the number of people being held captive/hostage.
Another concern is the range of situations that the syndrome is used to explain psychological behavior in other historical phenomenon including various types of abusive relationships. Many experts believe that Stockholm syndrome explains some of the behaviors exhibited by survivors of the WWII concentration camps as well as those that are or have been members of a religious cult. They also believe it explains the behavior of abuse victims including battered wives as well as physically, emotionally and sexually abused children in addition to people that have been taken captive or hostage by criminals or terrorists.
Despite the disagreements about what causes the development of Stockholm syndrome most experts agree that there must be three aspects present in order for a person to develop Stockholm syndrome. First there must be a significantly uneven power relationship between the captor and the captive where the captor decides exactly what the captive can and can not do. There also needs to be the threat of physical injury or death of the captive by the captor. And lastly the captive must have a strong instinct for self preservation. Essentially this means that the captive believes that he/she has no chance of escape therefore surviving means living with in the rules that have been set by the greater power, the captor. It doesn’t matter whether or not the believe is correct or not only that the captive believes it to be true. In addition the captives are kept isolated from the world outside their “prison” which only feeds the captives beliefs leading to the development of Stockholm syndrome.
Many experts also agree that there are three main characteristics of Stockholm syndrome. One, the captives have developed negative feelings about authorities especially the police. The captives also develop positive feelings toward their captors and the captors develop positive feelings toward the hostages. That said, it seems that Stockholm syndrome has become “over-emphasized, over-analyzed, over-psychologised and over-publicized in the past 25 years.” A study done by the FBI of hostage victims done in 1999 indicate that Stockholm syndrome occurs much less often than most people think. In most cases it is more a case of survival – “If I can’t beat ’em, I have to join them to survive, which can change at anytime.” Some experts believe this is more a case of traumatic bonding than Stockholm syndrome. Whether or not the three girls that were kidnapped and held hostage for a decade actually have Stockholm syndrome or not it will take months even years for them to recover from their horrendous ordeal. They are also at risk for developing PTSD as a result of their decade long trauma.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.