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How does a person develop Stockholm syndrome?

Generally speaking, the Stockholm syndrome process as seen in a kidnapping or hostage situation looks like this narrative involving a male captor and a female hostage:

A person finds herself held captive by a man who is threatening to kill her if she disobeys him. She may be abused and having trouble thinking straight. Escape, the captor says, is not an option - she, and perhaps her family, will end up dead. Her only chance to survive is obedience.

As time passes, obedience alone may become less of a sure thing - the captor is under increasing stress, and a change in his mood could mean harm to his prisoner. Figuring out the triggers of her captor's violence so she can avoid them becomes another survival strategy. In this way, she gets to know her captor.

A minor act of kindness by the captor, which can include simply not yet killing the prisoner, positions the captor as the prisoner's savior. In these traumatic, life-threatening circumstances, the prisoner views the slightest act of kindness - or the sudden absence of violence - as a sign of friendship in an otherwise hostile, terrifying world. The prisoner clings to it desperately.

The captor slowly seems less threatening - more an instrument of protection and survival than of harm. The prisoner undergoes what some call an act of self-delusion: To survive psychologically as well as physically, and to lessen the unimaginable stress of the situation, the prisoner begins to truly believe that the captor is her friend, that he won't kill her, that they can help each other "get out of this mess." The people on the outside trying to rescue her seem less like her allies and more like a threat to this person who is protecting her from harm. The fact that this person is also the source of the potential harm is buried in the process of self-delusion.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.