What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 15, 2023
4 min read

Stockholm syndrome is an emotional response. It happens to some abuse and hostage victims when they have positive feelings toward an abuser or captor.

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:

  • 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 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. 

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 the 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 (e.g. not enough food, physically uncomfortable space)
  • When hostages are dependent on a hostage-taker for basic needs
  • When threats to life are not carried out (e.g. mock executions)
  • When hostages haven’t been dehumanized 

A person might be abused and severely threatened by a captor or an abuser, but they 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.

There isn’t very much research on Stockholm syndrome, but it seems that it’s not just people who are held hostage who experience it. It can happen in different settings. 

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. 

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. 

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.

Stockholm syndrome isn’t listed as a formal mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5). People who have this syndrome seem to have some other common symptoms, though:‌

  • Embarrassment about their emotions toward an abuser
  • Confusion
  • Guilt
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
    • Nightmares
    • Insomnia
    • Flashbacks
    • Startling easily

After abuse or being held captive, they might also have many other symptoms, including:

  • Denial
  • Social withdrawal
  • Chronic feeling of tension
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • 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.