Tag Archives: Syndrome

What is Stockholm syndrome?

Often and incorrectly considered a psychological diagnosis, the Stockholm syndrome is an emotional response seen in hostages or victims of abuse. It involves this person — the one held hostage or experiencing the abuse — developing feelings of sympathy or other positive emotions for their tormentor. People may also develop this response due to other types of trauma.

Image via Pixabay.

The term was first coined in the 1970s, after an attempted bank heist turned into a six-day siege in Stockholm, Sweden. In the public mind, this event cemented the link between hostage situations and the syndrome. However, it’s not just hostages that can develop sympathy towards or positive relationships with their tormentors.

What is it?

Like with anything involving human emotions, understanding the roots of Stockholm syndrome isn’t simple. It involves an unconscious interplay between the captor and the captive.

As a very simple rundown of how the syndrome works, it involves the formation of an emotional bond between the captor and the captive. Eventually, the victim’s desire to survive and their gratitude towards the captor for ‘protecting’ their life becomes greater than their resentment or urge to punish the person who created the situation in the first place (which is also the captor themselves).

In essence, victims with Stockholm syndrome come to sympathize with their captors, instead of feeling fear, terror, or disdain for them.

“First people would experience something terrifying that just comes at them out of the blue. They are certain they are going to die. Then they experience a type of infantilization — where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission,” explained Psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg, for the US National Task Force on Terrorism and Disorder, in the 1970s.

“The hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor. They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.”

Stockholm syndrome virtually always develops between hostages and captors that have no previous relationship; the victim’s positive feelings towards their captors develop during a threatening or abusive situation from a blank slate. If this bond has enough time (and a favorable context) to develop, it can lead to the victims becoming quite attached to their tormentors. It’s not uncommon to see hostages exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome refusing to cooperate with police or other authorities, even going so far as to help their captors. It can take as little as a few days for Stockholm syndrome to manifest in hostages.

Other elements that seem to be involved in developing the syndrome include the captors treating their victims humanely, high levels of personal or face-to-face interactions between the captors and captives, the victims feeling that law enforcement is not doing enough to save them, or that authorities aren’t protecting their interests at all.

When does it happen?

From the evidence we’ve gathered up to today, psychologists believe that the syndrome takes root when a captor threatens to kill or harm a captive, deliberates, and then chooses not to. It’s assumed that this apparently simple event transforms a captor, in the perception of the victim, from someone who harms them into someone who saves them. The initial fear of death is transformed into gratitude for the captor as, in the perception of the victim, they were the ones who removed the threat and protected them.

“Julian [the Apostate] returns the hostage son to the leader of the Chamaven, c. 350–363”, Christiaan Lodewijk van Kesteren. Image in Public Domain via Lookandlearn.com.

By having the opportunity to interact with them, hostages can more easily identify with their captors, see them more as individuals rather than abstract aggressor figures, and get to know them better. Eventually, this makes hostages perceive their captors less as a threat — maybe even as fellows through a dangerous period — especially in cases when the victims and the aggressors hold the same or similar values.

At the core of the syndrome lies our survival instincts. Hostage or abusive situations are very hard on the human psyche, and the normal concerns of our day-to-day lives are swept aside by the simple need to survive. A hostage’s survival is in very real terms in the hands of their captors and they live in enforced dependence on them. Against this backdrop, victims can interpret minute acts of kindness as good treatment. Since their life depends on other people’s decisions, victims become hyper-aware of the needs and demands of their captors.

In the minds of the victim, then, their happiness and wellbeing are completely linked to the happiness and wellbeing of their tormentor. This is the foundation upon which their positive relationship with the captor forms. It’s not that uncommon to see hostages taking a negative attitude to those who are trying to save them, siding with their captors in various situations. This is most commonly seen in those hostages that are not useful to their captors except as leverage.

Captors can also develop positive feelings for their victims.

Why does it happen?

It is still unclear why some victims develop Stockholm syndrome. Not every hostage, victim of abuse, or person who has experienced trauma develops this response. Although it has been argued that Stockholm syndrome is a psychological mechanism for coping with stress, its veracity as a disease is still contested. It has been argued that its symptoms overlap with other psychological phenomena, most pointedly trauma bonding and learned helplessness.

So, really, we don’t know for sure; we’re not even sure that it is an actual, self-contained psychological response. But we do have some theories as to why some victims could develop Stockholm syndrome.

This emotional response can be seen as a survival mechanism. Humans develop emotional connections with others as part of our innate survival strategy, and such a bond shared even with an abuser can raise our chances of survival. Since we tend to like people who like us, this emotional bond can marginally improve the situation for the victim and coax the captors or abusers to meet their basic needs, at the very least.

However, there is very little reliable data on the syndrome, since researchers can’t just take people hostage. So there is not a lot of agreement on what it is, its symptoms, or its purpose. What we’ve talked about here is more conjecture and deduction rather than verifiable fact.

What are the signs of Stockholm syndrome?

In broad terms, any victim or captive showing unexpected sympathy or camaraderie with their captors can be exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome. This can be expressed in both passive (i.e. behaving in a friendly manner) or active ways (i.e. providing assistance).

In particular, they:

  • perceive or describe certain acts or words from captors or abusers as showing kindness and compassion;
  • develop unexplainable, positive feelings towards them;
  • start adopting the ideology, goals, mannerisms, or worldview of their tormentors;
  • refuse to leave their captors even when presented with an opportunity to do so;
  • feel remorse for their captors or abusers if they are caught;
  • they may even help them, or attempt to thwart law enforcement and anyone else who is trying to help them escape.

Surprisingly, these responses seem to persist even after the victim is removed from the threatening situation. They may continue expressing positive feelings for their captors or abusers even after these have been apprehended and found guilty. At the same time, they may experience the regular signs of abuse survival such as depression, anxiety, flashbacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Today, the Stockholm syndrome isn’t recognized by psychologists as a real condition. The term was even coined by a police psychiatrist to discredit a female hostage in a 1973 bank heist after she criticized the police. Despite this, hostages and abuse survivors show the effects of this syndrome often enough that it can’t be a coincidence. The main difficulty in studying this syndrome is that researchers can’t ethically obtain reliable data on the syndrome, since we can’t just take people hostage. To that end, we may never truly understand this syndrome, how it emerges, and what its symptoms are.

Sudden infant death syndrome linked to a rare genetic mutation

A group of researchers discovered a new, important genetic mutation, associated with the breathing muscles, that is implicated in cot deaths. They believe future research will find a way to prevent such tragedies.

Via Pixabay/RitaE

“Previously the whole focus of trying to understand it was either the heart or the brain cells controlling breathing,” said Professor Michael Hanna of the MRC Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases at University College London, one of the authors of the new paper published in The Lancet.

Professor Hanna said that researchers now want to investigate all the other genes associated with the breathing muscles that may be implicated in cot deaths and see what role they are playing.

The newly discovered genetic mutation causes a dysfunction in the management of low oxygen levels in the infant’s blood, researchers said.  It alters the shape of a “sodium pump” that maintains an electric current to stimulate muscle contraction.

“I think the evidence is pretty compelling that some cases of SIDS are caused by sodium channel mutations,” said Prof. Hanna.
“There must be a vulnerability, and what we’re saying is that in some cases, the sodium channel is rendering them vulnerable,” he explained.

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), is also known as crib death because the seemingly healthy infants often die in their cribs during sleep. The affected babies are less than a year old. These tragic events are rare, about 300 such unexpected deaths happening in the UK every year and 2,400 in the US.

Doctors recommend to lay the babies on their back and not their front, not to smoke near them and not to share a bed with them. Time has proven that these measures reduce the risks of cot deaths, but scientists have never understood why such horrible events happened. Previous research has described one other genetic mutation in a heart gene which may play a part in SIDS.

In this new paper, researchers studied the cases of 278 children who died unexpectedly and were diagnosed with SIDS – 84 from the UK and 194 from the US. After sequencing their genome, scientists compared them with the ones of adults with no cardiovascular, neurological or respiratory diseases.

Next, researchers looked at the prevalence of the SCN4A gene that codes for a cell surface receptor found on top of breathing muscular cells. At birth, the expression of this surface receptor is low, gradually increasing during the first two years of life.

Scientists observed that the rare mutation was found in four of the children previously diagnosed with SIDS, and in none of the adults. Even though the figure may not seem relevant to you, researchers say it is highly significant because it is normally found in fewer than five people in every 100,000. The research team believes that this mutation could affect children’s breathing muscles, making them weaker. Infants are most vulnerable when sleeping in the wrong position or tangled in the bedclothes.

“In the population we studied, the evidence is strong that it is at the very least a risk factor in those cases that had it [the genetic mutation],” said Hanna. “It certainly doesn’t explain the majority of Sids,” he concluded.

Luckily, in the future, researchers will be able to find all the genes implicated in triggering SIDS and develop a method to fight this dreadful syndrome.

White Nose Bat Syndrome spreads deeper into the U.S. — first case confirmed west of the Rockies

The first case of white nose syndrome, a disease that has wreaked havoc on bat populations in the eastern U.S. has been identified west of the Rockies. The disease’s spread threatens to drastically impact bat populations there, altering ecosystems throughout the country.

Hikers discovered a little brown bat with white nose syndrome on a trail east of Seattle last in mid-March this year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey announced on Tuesday. This marks the first incidence of the deadly fungus west of the Rockies. The ailing bat was taken to an animal shelter, where it died two days later.

Picture of a little brown bat with white nose syndrome, taken in New York state, Oct 2008.
Image credits to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories branch chief David Blehert thinks it’s “surprising and unusual” to find the fungus spread this far west — the closest the syndrome has been identified before was Nebraska, some 1,300 miles from the site.

 “We’ve been dreading this,” said senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity Mollie Matteson in an interview for The Huffington Post. “This is a drastic jump.”

“This is the first time, to our knowledge, that there has been a long-range jump of the fungus,” Blehert said.

Caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructan, white nose syndrome can wipe out entire bat colonies. It gets its name from the white fuzzy fungal growths on the noses, wings and ears of affected bats. The devastating disease spreads throughout bodily tissue, disrupting physiological processes and interrupting essential hibernation periods, causing bats to waste away.

It has already caused the deaths of more than 6 million bats in the eastern U.S, in what some describe as the steepest decline or North American wildlife of the past century.

Seven different species of cave hibernating bats in 28 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces have been affected by white nose syndrome since 2006, when the first case was recorded in upstate New York. Two of these species are native to Washington state.

“I wish I could be optimistic, but given what we have seen on the East Coast, it’s hard to,” said Sharlene E. Santana, assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington.

“We knew it was coming [to the West], but we didn’t know it would be so soon,” Matteson said.

Range of white nose syndrome.
Image credits Washington Department of FIsh and Wildlife.

Blehert’s analysis of the Washington bat revealed that the disease was at an advanced stage, suggesting it had been present in the area for quite some time. Genetic sequencing indicates that the animal is a native to the area.

“We don’t know how the fungus got there,” Blehert said.

The fungus could have been transported bat-to-bat — which would have taken an extraordinarily long time. Or, as Blehert suspects, through human travel and trade, one of the largest spreader of infectious diseases. Humans aren’t affected by the fungus but act as carriers and are believed to (unknowingly) play a central part in transporting the disease across the country. Hikers’ and spelunkers’ clothes and gear can transport the fungus, according to the researchers.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009.
Image credits Marvin Moriarty/USFWS, via flirk.

Unfortunately there is no proven method to cure the disease or at least halt its spread.

“We had hope that by the time [white nose syndrome] started to spread to the West, that there were more effective treatments in place,” Matteson said.

Scientists are now looking into the genetic code of the fungus to determine its point of origin and try to set up precautions to halt its spread around the world — the fungus most likely arrived in the U.S. on a human carrier from Asia or Europe where it’s endemic. They’re also looking into creating a vaccine that could give the bats a fighting chance against white nose syndrome.

“For years, we have been saying there needs to be stricter protocol put in place to minimize the chance of a jump like this via human transmission,” Matterson added.

Authorities are now putting abandoned mines and caves under lock-down to protect resident bat colonies. Federal agencies encourage visitors to decontaminate themselves and gear before entering an area with bats, but Matteson argued decontamination should be mandatory.

“We have species that are at risk of going extinct; it’s the least that could be done.”

Bats are an integral part of an ecosystem, and scientists are concerned about the chain reaction their loss might have on plant and animal life, including humans. If the bat population declines, insects would thrive and devastate agricultural areas. Populations of disease-carrying insects would also be left unchecked.

However, there might still be hope. Because bats in the western U.S. tend not to hibernate in large groups, the disease might not spread as widely or quickly from bat to bat. But far less is known in general about how bats hibernate on the West Coast, Matterson said, which means the bats could already be dying.

“As the case in Washington indicates, the disease has already been there for a couple years, and it just got discovered this past month,” she added.

“One of the huge problems with white nose syndrome has been that the [government] response was slow to get off the ground, it was disorganized, a lack of leadership, there wasn’t any decontamination requirement for western public lands, no cave closures.”

“There will be more in the future,” she concluded. “We need to learn our lesson.”

Wildlife officials encourage people who encounter sick or dead bats to report it via an online reporting tool or telephone hotline, 1-800-606-8768.