What Is Stockholm Syndrome

  • Pranjal Ajit Yeole Bachelor's of Biological Sciences, Biology/Biological Sciences, General, University of Warwick, UK
  • Olga Gabriel Master's degree, Forensic Science, Uppsala University, Sweden

When someone experiences abuse, they often suffer from a range of psychological effects. Prolonged distress can lead to diagnoses like major depressive disorder (MDD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).1 Feelings of guilt, shame, and anger are typical responses to various forms of abuse.  However, what happens when the victim develops empathy towards their abusers? This phenomenon is commonly known as "Stockholm Syndrome” and has been repeatedly discussed by the media and researchers. This article aims to give you a short overview of everything you need to know. 

Stockholm syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages or victims of kidnapping develop a psychological bond, attachment, or even loyalty to their captors. This bond is typically characterized by a feeling of empathy and sympathy towards their abusers, even though they are subjected to stress, threat, and danger by them. It can lead to a situation where the hostages may defend, protect, or even identify with their kidnappers, sometimes to the detriment of their well-being and safety. Stockholm Syndrome is considered a survival mechanism that can help victims cope with the extreme stress and fear associated with being held against their will.2

Historical context

The stockholm syndrome incident: norrmalmstorg robbery in 1973

On the morning of August 23, 1973, Janne Olsson, a 32-year-old escaped prisoner armed with a submachine gun, entered Sveriges Kreditbanken in Norrmalmstorg Square, Stockholm, Sweden. He fired shots, injuring a police officer, and took four bank clerks hostage. Olsson demanded the release of his prison mate, 26-year-old Clark Olofsson, which the Swedish government agreed to. Olofsson joined Olsson, and together, they barricaded themselves and the hostages inside the bank's vault. This incident eventually led to the phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome. The four hostages developed a bond with their captors, expressing a reluctance to be rescued by the police. One expressed, "This is our reality now...living in this secure vault to survive. Anyone who threatens this world is our enemy." 2

Notable real-life cases illustrating Stockholm Syndrome

  1. Mary McElroy (1933): After being kidnapped and held at gunpoint, Mary McElroy expressed sympathy for her captors and struggled to name them during the trial. This behaviour suggests an emotional connection or identification with her kidnappers, which aligns with Stockholm Syndrome.
  2. Patty Hearst (1974): Patty Hearst, kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, not only adopted a new identity but also participated in criminal activities alongside her captors. Despite using Stockholm Syndrome as her defence, the jury did not fully accept this explanation, highlighting the complexity of the syndrome and how it can be perceived differently in legal contexts.
  3. Natascha Kampusch (1998): Natascha Kampusch, kidnapped at the age of 10 and held captive for over eight years, displayed conflicting emotions upon learning about her captor's death. Her inconsolable weeping suggests a deep emotional connection, even after enduring years of abuse and captivity.

Causes and risk factors of stockholm syndrome

Traumatic bonding

Impact of trauma on emotional connections:

Intense emotional situations: Extreme stress and fear experienced during captivity can create intense emotional experiences, fostering a strong emotional bond with captors.

Human need for connection: Humans have an innate need for connection and may seek emotional bonds even in traumatic situations, leading to attachment with captors.

Development of dependency on captors for survival

Survival instinct: Captives may develop a dependency on captors as a survival strategy, relying on them for basic needs like food, water, and safety.

Perceived protection: Captives may perceive the captors as a source of protection, especially if they have demonstrated occasional kindness or spared the captive from harm.

Isolation and dependency

Isolation from external support systems

Cut-off from support: Captives cut off from their social support systems, such as family and friends, lack alternative perspectives and emotional reinforcement, increasing reliance on captors for social interaction.

Limited information: Lack of information about the outside world can create a sense of dependency on captors for information and context.

Lack of resources or means to escape

Physical restraints: Physical constraints or the threat of violence can prevent captives from attempting to escape, leaving them feeling helpless and reliant on their captors.

Individual differences

Vulnerability factors: 

History of trauma: Individuals with a history of trauma, especially childhood abuse, may be more susceptible to forming trauma bonds and Stockholm Syndrome.

Mental health issues: Pre-existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders or attachment disorders, can increase vulnerability to developing Stockholm Syndrome.

Role of personality traits in susceptibility to Stockholm Syndrome:

High empathy: Research evidence supports that victims with high levels of empathy may be more prone to sympathize with their abuser.3

Compliant personality:

Individuals with compliant or submissive personality traits might be more likely to adapt to their captors' expectations, seeking approval and safety in return.

Symptoms and behavioural patterns

Stockholm syndrome is characterised by specific symptoms and behavioural patterns displayed by the hostages. These can be categorized as follows:

Emotional symptoms:

  1. Positive feelings toward abusers: Hostages may develop affection, trust, or even loyalty towards their captors, viewing them in a positive light.
  2. Empathy and sympathy for abusers’ beliefs: Hostages may start to understand and share the captors' perspectives, feeling empathy and sympathy for their situation.
  3. Negative feelings toward authority figures or rescuers: Hostages may harbour negative emotions, suspicion, or fear towards authorities and those attempting to rescue them.4

Cognitive symptoms

  1. Rationalization of captors’ actions: Hostages might justify or rationalize the actions of their captors, trying to make sense of the situation.
  2. Difficulty accepting help or support from others: Hostages may resist offers of help or support from outside sources, finding it hard to trust anyone other than their captors.

Behavioural patterns

  1. Compliance with captors’ demands: Hostages may comply with the demands and requests made by their captors, even if these actions go against their own interests or values.
  2. Resistance to authorities and those trying to help: Hostages may actively resist authorities and individuals attempting to assist them, perhaps out of fear or loyalty to their captors.

How is stockholm syndrome treated?

Because Stockholm Syndrome is not officially classified as a psychiatric disorder, there are no established treatment protocols for this condition. However, individuals often require counselling or psychological therapy to navigate the complex emotions and thoughts stemming from traumatic events.5

Given that Stockholm Syndrome is linked to trauma, it is recommended to seek a therapist who employs a trauma-informed approach. It is advisable to look for therapists experienced in evidence-based trauma treatments such as cognitive processing therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), accelerated resolution therapy, or prolonged exposure therapy. These therapies have shown effectiveness in helping individuals cope with the aftermath of traumatic experiences and navigate their healing process.

How can I support someone going through stockholm syndrome?

  1. Listen without judgment: Try to comprehend their feelings and experiences without judgment. Listen attentively and empathetically, allowing them to express themselves without fear of criticism.
  2. Stay informed: Educate yourself about Stockholm Syndrome and related psychological phenomena.
  3. Recommend professional help: Suggest they seek assistance from trained therapists or counsellors who specialize in trauma. Encouraging professional guidance can provide them with the tools needed for healing.
  4. Acknowledge their reality: Validate their emotions and experiences. Recognize their truth, even if it seems confusing or contradictory. Reassure them that their feelings are valid and deserving of understanding.
  5. Respect their choices: Honour their decisions, even if they are difficult to accept. Everyone's healing journey is unique, and empowering them to make their own choices can foster a sense of control and autonomy.


Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where hostages or victims of abduction develop a bond, attachment, or loyalty to their captors, often exhibiting empathy and sympathy towards them despite the abuse they endure. This condition arises as a survival mechanism in response to extreme stress and fear during captivity. Several notable cases, such as Mary McElroy, Patty Hearst, and Natascha Kampusch, illustrate the complexities of this syndrome. The syndrome manifests through emotional symptoms like positive feelings and trust towards abusers, as well as empathy for their beliefs. Hostages may rationalize captors' actions and resist help from others, complying with captors' demands while being resistant to authorities and rescuers. Several factors contribute to Stockholm Syndrome, including traumatic bonding, isolation, dependency, vulnerability factors like previous trauma and mental health issues, and individual personality traits such as high empathy or compliance.

Despite not being officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder, individuals affected by Stockholm Syndrome often require counselling or psychological therapy. A trauma-informed approach is crucial, with therapies like cognitive processing therapy, accelerated resolution therapy, or prolonged exposure therapy being recommended. Continued research and understanding of this phenomenon are essential to improve recognition, diagnosis, and treatment strategies. Approaching survivors with empathy and providing robust support systems are vital components of their healing process.


  1. Favaro A, Degortes D, Colombo G, Santonastaso P. The effects of trauma among kidnap victims in Sardinia, Italy. Psychological Medicine [Internet]. 2000 Jul [cited 2023 Oct 19];30(4):975–80. Available from: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/abs/effects-of-trauma-among-kidnap-victims-in-sardinia-italy/10BF272112C7DEC52C34B27710CD895E
  2. Namnyak M, Tufton N, Szekely R, Toal M, Worboys S, Sampson EL. ‘Stockholm syndrome’: psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth? Acta Psychiatr Scand [Internet]. 2008 Jan [cited 2023 Oct 19];117(1):4–11. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0447.2007.01112.x
  3. Graham DLR, Rawlings EI, Rigsby RK. Loving to survive: Sexual terror, men’s violence, and women’s lives. New York, NY, US: New York University Press; 1994. xxiii, 321 p. (Loving to survive: sexual terror, men’s violence, and women’s lives).
  4. De Fabrique N, Van Hasselt VB, Vecchi GM, Romano SJ. Common variables associated with the development of Stockholm syndrome: some case examples. Victims & Offenders [Internet]. 2007 Jan 12 [cited 2023 Oct 19];2(1):91–8. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15564880601087266
  5. Adorjan M, Christensen T, Kelly B, Pawluch D. Stockholm syndrome as vernacular resource. The Sociological Quarterly [Internet]. 2012 Aug [cited 2023 Oct 19];53(3):454–74. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1533-8525.2012.01241.x
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Styliani Tsolka

MSc, Health Psychology, University of Surrey, UK
BSc, Psychology, University of Surrey, UK

Stella is dedicated to promoting Mental Health Awareness, among people of all backgrounds and knowledgeable in applying theoretical concepts with real-life scenarios. In the future, Stella aspires to qualify as a Counselling Psychologist, focusing on individualized holistic care.

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