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What You Need To Know About Stockholm Syndrome

By Dr Kafayah Ogunsola
19 April 2022   |   1:31 pm
Did you ever watch that film or read that book and get so mad at that character for protecting their abuser from the police? Before the film or book is done, you have done the rounds of screaming at them in your head for making excuses for their abusers or blaming themselves for being abused.…

Did you ever watch that film or read that book and get so mad at that character for protecting their abuser from the police? Before the film or book is done, you have done the rounds of screaming at them in your head for making excuses for their abusers or blaming themselves for being abused.

Stockholm syndrome is a condition whereby people who are held captive or are subject to abuse develop a bond with their captors or abusers as a coping technique. The victims develop a reversal of expected feelings toward their abusers, for example, infatuation.

It is almost like a survival instinct. Victims misinterpret sparse acts of compassion from their captors as excellent treatment amid terrible circumstances. They frequently become hyper-aware of their abuser’s needs and demands, forming psychological linkages between their captor’s happiness and their own.

Stockholm Syndrome is not classified as a mental illness under any of the diagnostic manuals for mental disorders, but its symptoms are recognised to arise from an imbalance in the sufferer’s mental health. Stockholm syndrome is really just a psychological response to situations of captivity and is often not easily diagnosable except by its symptoms. The International Classification of Diseases manual 11th edition and the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) are global medical manuals containing accepted diagnosed diseases/illnesses. Both do not recognise Stockholm syndrome as a diagnosable psychological illness/disease/disorder.

Why Does Stockholm Syndrome Develop?

Now that we know what Stockholm syndrome is, another difficult question to answer is why Stockholm syndrome develops.

First is the emotional attachment that grows over time between the abuser and the victim because of the length of time and the treatment experienced during the “relationship”. As mentioned earlier, victims misinterpret acts of compassion as excellent treatment amid terrible circumstances.

Another reason is the social detachment captives are faced with while in captivity and post captivity. The victims, while with their captors, are often alone and completely cut off from larger social groups. This leaves them without relevant social skills and they feel others would not understand their circumstances.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is also a major factor as victims are drained of healthy and functional cognitive skills like the clarity of thoughts and fundamental memory capacity. The trauma suffered during the experience often leads captives to create a split defence mind and dissociate their realities into two, one of total submission to happiness with the abuser and the other of tolerance to every other person’s perception of the circumstances at play.

So, what are the causes of Stockholm Syndrome?

● Emotional or financial dependency on the abuser
● Hopelessness & fear
● Low self-esteem
● Societal resignation to influences like religious teachings, culture, social status, divorce stigma.

Other causes differ based on the situation at play leading to the development of Stockholm syndrome.

Common symptoms of Stockholm syndrome include;

● Victims feel pity toward the captor or abuser
● The victim is always in constant fear of situations where disappointing their captor arises
● Hopelessness to any circumstance that will change the status quo between victim and captors
● Gaslighting- a situation where the victim questions their thoughts, and confidence among others because of the physiological dependency on the captor
● Deliberate self-sabotage and placement of captor/abuser’s self-interest above theirs.

Why don’t victims just leave?

I know you’re probably asking yourself, why am I still here? Why do I find it difficult to leave? It’s more like being in a fairytale phase. Your mind has come up with this fantasy that he or she loves you and is only correcting or taking care of you. During that period, their entire existence becomes dependent on their abuser’s choices and decisions.

Some victims invest everything they have and some even lose their self-worth. It’s the one way they know how to cope and survive.

This is one of the many situations in life where you must have walked a mile in someone’s shoes to understand. Just don’t think that it will be so easy for them to get up and leave.

Seeking Help

It is highly important that help is sought as soon as possible. It should be noted that like any issue, the first step is recognising that an issue does exist and most times, this is where the major barrier occurs as victims often need to be coerced into seeking help as they would often not consider themselves as having an issue.
So effectively the burden of the solution lies with friends, family and society at large to continuously raise awareness about it and to amend religious and cultural beliefs around domestic violence and leaving an abusive partner which is a common area, where this phenomenon plays out.

We must assuredly be ready to accept the victims’ reality and be likewise prepared to go to whatever length to change victims’ reality on their behalf.

Dr Kafayah Ogunsola (MB, BS, FWACP(psych.) is the lead Psychiatrist, Therapist and founder, at EmpathySpace Therapy Hub, Lagos.