Adjusting to life after being held hostage or kidnapped
Freedom almost always brings a sense of elation and relief. However, adjusting back to the real world after being held hostage can be just as difficult as abruptly leaving it. Upon release, many hostage survivors are faced with transitioning from conditions of isolation and helplessness to sensory overload and freedom. This transition often results in significant adjustment difficulties.
Hostage and kidnap survivors can experience stress reactions. Typical reactions occur in:
- Thinking: Intrusive thoughts, denial, impaired memory, decreased concentration, being overcautious and aware, confusion or fear of the event happening again.
- Emotions: Shock, numbness, anxiety, guilt, depression, anger and a sense of helplessness.
- Interactions: Withdrawal and avoidance of family, friends, activities and being on edge.
Such reactions to an extremely stressful event are understandable and normal. These are typical responses and generally decrease after a period of time. It is common for people's reactions to vary from one individual to another.
According to research, hostage survivors often develop an unconscious bond to their captors and experience grief if their captors are harmed. They may also feel guilty for developing a bond. This is typically referred to as the Stockholm syndrome. Hostage survivors may also have feelings of guilt for surviving while others did not. It is important for survivors to recognize that these are usual human reactions to being held captive.
When hostages are released, it is essential for them to:
- Receive medical attention.
- Be in a safe and secure environment.
- Connect with loved ones.
- Have an opportunity to talk or journal their experience if and when they choose.
- Receive resources and information about how to seek counseling, particularly if their distress from the incident is interfering with their daily lives.
- Protect their privacy (e.g. avoid media overexposure including watching and listening to news and participating in media interviews).
- Take time to adjust back into family and work.
Family and friends can support survivors by listening, being patient and focusing on their freedom instead of engaging in negative talk about the captors.
It is important to realize that families and friends of hostages are confronted with numerous issues in coping with fears and uncertainties as well and may also need support in dealing with their own emotional reactions.
Recovery and the future
Released hostages need time to recover from the physical, mental and emotional difficulties they faced. However, it is important to keep in mind that human beings are highly resilient and can persevere in spite of tragedy. Research shows that positive growth and resilience can occur following trauma.
Hostage survivors may feel lost or have difficulty managing intense reactions and may need help adjusting to their old life following release. If there are chronic indications of stress, continued feelings of numbness, disturbed sleep, as well as other signs, the hostage survivor might want to consider seeking help from a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist, who can help develop an appropriate strategy for moving forward. To find a psychologist in your area, visit APA's Psychologist Locator.
Thanks to psychologists Raymond Hanbury, PhD, ABPP, and David Romano, PhD, for their assistance with this article.
- Bonanno, G., Papa, A., & O'Neill, K. (2001) Loss and Human Resilience. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 10: 193-206.
- Speckhard, A., Tabrina, N., Krasnov, V. & Mufel, N. (2005) "Stockholm Effects and Psychological Responses to Captivity in Hostages Held by Suicidal Terrorists" in S. Wessely & V. Krasnov eds. Psychological Responses to the new Terrorism: A NATO Russia Dialogue, IOS Press. pg. 29.
- Wessely, S. (2005) Victimhood and Resilience. New England Journal of Medicine, 353: 548-550.