What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on December 04, 2023
7 min read

Stockholm syndrome isn't a psychological diagnosis. Instead, it's a way of understanding the emotional response some people have toward a captor or an abuser. It happens to some abuse and hostage victims when they have positive feelings toward an abuser or a captor.

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:

  • Love
  • Sympathy
  • Empathy
  • Desire to protect them

Stockholm syndrome might also cause the hostage to have negative feelings toward the police or anyone who might attempt a rescue.

Why is it called Stockholm syndrome?

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 captors.

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.

Is Stockholm Syndrome the same as trauma bonding?

While trauma bonding and Stockholm syndrome are closely related, they are not necessarily the same thing. Like Stockholm syndrome, trauma bonding occurs when a person begins to empathize with their abuser. Many people differentiate the two based on each response's reciprocity. Trauma bonding is usually a one-way response—the abuser doesn't empathize back—while empathy is felt more mutually in instances of Stockholm syndrome. But some people prefer the term "trauma bonding" over "Stockholm syndrome" as they see it as being less stigmatized.

Even though Stockholm syndrome isn't a formal diagnosis, people who have this syndrome seem to have some symptoms in common. These include:

  • Affection for or attachment to the abuser
  • Attempting to help the abuser
  • Distrust of or anger toward those trying to extract them from the situation
  • Rationalizing abuse
  • Perceiving basic dignity as kindness
  • Feeling powerless

After leaving an abusive relationship or being held captive, they might also have many other symptoms, including:

  • Denial
  • Social withdrawal
  • Chronic feeling of tension
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Learned helplessness
  • Excessive dependence
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Embarrassment about their emotions toward an abuser
  • Confusion
  • Guilt
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Flashbacks
  • Startling easily

Not all people who are in situations experience Stockholm syndrome. It's not entirely clear why some people react this way, but it's thought to be a survival mechanism. A person might create these bonds as a way to cope with an extreme and terrifying situation.

Some key pieces seem to increase the likelihood of a Stockholm syndrome. These include:

  • Being in an emotionally charged situation for a long time
  • Being in a shared space with the hostage-taker with poor conditions (for example, not having enough food or being in a physically uncomfortable space)
  • When hostages are dependent on a hostage-taker for basic needs
  • When threats to life are not carried out (for example, mock executions)
  • When hostages haven't been dehumanized

A person might be abused and severely threatened by a captor or an abuser, but they may also rely on them to survive. If the abuser is kind in any way, they might cling to this as a coping mechanism for survival. They might have sympathy toward them for this kindness.

It's difficult to look through the historical record and "diagnose" Stockholm syndrome to another person's particular situation. But there are a few high-profile cases that are widely considered to be examples. They include the following:

  • In 1933, Mary McElroy, the 25-year-old daughter of Kansas City politician Henry McElroy, was kidnapped and held at gunpoint by four inexperienced criminals. During her 34 hours of captivity, McElroy ended up befriending the men. The feeling was apparently mutual, as the kidnappers released her and paid for her transportation fare home after receiving $30,000 dollars in ransom. Three of the men were later caught, and one—Walter McGee—was sentenced to death. This was later changed to life in prison after McElroy protested the sentence.

  • Patricia Hearst, a 19-year-old newspaper heiress, was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The guerilla organization was banking on Hearst's status to bring attention to their cause—and it did. To the surprise of many, the young woman ended up joining the cause despite having been tied up and threatened with death by prominent SLA members for many weeks. She even participated in several armed robberies over the next year. Eventually, the FBI caught Hearst and a number of other SLA members following a massive raid. Hearst later used Stockholm syndrome as part of her defense in trial.

Stockholm syndrome in relationships

Though it was originally coined to describe the emotional state of hostages, the phrase Stockholm syndrome has also been widely applied to more intimate, everyday relationships. These include parental bonds, romantic partnerships and even friendships. Like its original context, Stockholm syndrome in relationships usually reflects a power imbalance—as well as some kind of abuse of that power. Stockholm syndrome can develop in many settings, including:

Child abuse. Abuse can be very confusing for children. Abusers often threaten and physically harm their victims, but they might also show kindness that can be interpreted as love or affection. An emotional bond can grow between the child and the abuser that often protects the abuser for a long time. The children of abusive parents or guardians may also be convinced that they "deserve" whatever punishment their caregivers dole out.

Sports. Children or youth who have abusive athletic coaches might develop Stockholm syndrome. If they start to rationalize the coach's behavior, they might defend or sympathize with them. This might lead to having Stockholm syndrome.

Abuse. Sexual, physical, or emotional domestic abuse can lead to confusing emotional bonds between the victim and the abuser. Domestic abuse survivors may continue to feel deep love and affection for their partners despite being subject to violence.

Sex trafficking. People who are trafficked and forced into sex trade work become dependent on captors for basic needs. They might develop an emotional bond as a way to survive.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, you can reach out to organizations such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for help.

Stockholm syndrome isn't recognized by the American Psychological Association or listed as a formal mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While therapists can't treat Stockholm syndrome directly, they can treat related conditions, including acute stress disorder and PTSD.

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 retraumatize 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, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. This treatment may involve cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and/or medication.

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 Stockholm syndrome as a survival mechanism you used to get through a difficult experience.

Stockholm syndrome is not an officially recognized diagnosis in most clinical circles. But it is usually associated with PTSD, anxiety, and depression, which can all be treated by conventional means. If you or someone you know has experienced Stockholm syndrome—either in a traumatic hostage situation or in a relationship—you should seek help from a therapist.

What are the signs of Stockholm syndrome?

People experiencing Stockholm syndrome might start to sympathize with their abusers and even feel that they are in the right. They might also start to internalize and rationalize physical and emotional abuse, believing that they "deserve" it. It's important to note that although they may seem counterintuitive, such reactions are not uncommon in highly charged situations.

Why do people get Stockholm syndrome?

There are a number of theories as to why people develop Stockholm syndrome. One is that it is a survival response—this is also known as "appeasement." The idea is that in a situation where one individual has more power than another and a tendency to react violently, the less powerful individual could lower their chance of being hurt by trying to keep the other happy.

Another idea is that the condition arises as an offshoot of "in group/out group" mentality. In this case, the captor and their hostage become the in group, while the authorities and the hostage's family become the out group. Some believe that the heightened emotions of such situations play into the formation of this mentality.

Is Stockholm syndrome love?

Stockholm syndrome is not love, though it can exist alongside deep emotional attachment, and the two may feel similar. If you are in an abusive relationship, for instance, it can be extremely difficult to disentangle this survival mechanism from genuine love. Unlike healthy relationships, however, Stockholm syndrome-style attachments are isolating and rooted in a massive power imbalance.