The psychology of being a hostage

Being held hostage can be a devastating psychological event. In The Missing Hours, Beck Chambers has been held in captivity and has survived and once again achieved his freedom. And yet, in the aftermath, his life has fallen apart. So why? What does being held captive mean, in psychological terms, to the hostage?

Imagine how this would be – you are on your way to work. You have left the house at the same time you always do, are driving the same route that you take each day. In all likelihood you are not paying a whole lot of attention to your journey. You have done it so many times before that your cognitive processes are relatively free to dwell on other things – the day ahead, perhaps, or that argument with your spouse.

Then, something happens. A van in front of you stops suddenly, forcing you to brake hard. Or a car comes from a side road, ramming into your passenger side.

The suddenness jars your Sympathetic Nervous System into life, releasing copious amounts of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into your system. You are alert now, the entirety of your cognitive function focusing on the men pouring out of the car in front of you, yanking open your door. You are likely to shake, your heart is beating faster, and your muscles are tense. And yet, these first moments of capture are likely to be marked mostly with a sense of unreality. You have never experienced anything like this before, and so your brain has no schema (or understanding of how the world works) which will fit this event, and the majority of your cognition will be working to process what is happening to you.

You are forced into the back of a van, driven off to a location unknown, your senses straining to gather information that will help you understand what is going on. Eventually, you are taken into a safe house, kept away from people and light, and the world goes dark.

That is when the real psychological work kicks in.

You have been removed from your life. Your existence is now dependent on the whims of your kidnapper. Odds are you will be experiencing fear, helplessness and a drowning sense of uncertainty as to what the future will hold. The isolation of your new environment itself will be a major problem. You are likely not to know if anyone even knows you have been taken. Is anyone looking for you? Or are you entirely on your own?

A knock on effect of this sense of long term isolation is that the hostage may lose their own sense of who they are. Our identity is fuelled in no small part by those with whom we surround ourselves. The loss of these interactions can leave the hostage struggling to maintain their own sense of identity. A proof of life request can help with this. It can tell the hostage that their freedom is being actively sought by those on the outside, whilst simultaneously reminding them of their social ties.

In these early stages, your body and your brain are trying to cope by using implicit adaptation mechanisms – denial. However, as time goes on, you are likely to begin deliberately forming coping strategies. Hostages have told of keeping a diary, making plans for the future or planning an escape.

Part of this coping is likely to be forming some manner of bond with the hostage taker. This is entirely natural. Developing a positive relationship with the captor is an evolutionary process, designed to allow the hostage to increase their own chances of survival.

Kidnapping can sometimes be a long process. The victims can become adapted to this new, isolated and controlled way of life, such that, when the opportunity to escape presents itself, not all will take it. Those for whom the power to make their own decisions and take charge of their own destiny has been removed, may well struggle when they find themselves in a time-limited situation in which those very traits are required in order to achieve freedom. The hostage may feel anger at themselves and at the universe as a whole, for the position in which they find themselves.

Eventually, in days or weeks or months, your freedom is bought. And yet the life that you once knew is gone. What you return to will be a new life, often markedly different from the one before. Initially, there is often a kind of re-entry shock, as you struggle to adapt to the sounds, smells and human contact of normal life. You may withdraw from the very people whose touch you so recently craved, simply because the stimulation of that is so overwhelming to you. Soon after the release, it is common to experience flashbacks, nightmares, and to have to cope with the potent fear that it could happen again, therefore bringing on a kind of hyper vigilance in which you are forever hunting for the next danger.

For some hostages, captivity is a traumatic event that has long term consequences, occasionally leading to substance abuse, depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, for the majority of hostages, time and psychological support provide healing. Research has shown that hostages can even describe themselves as thriving in the aftermath of their captivity. As Dr Phil says (god, I love him!), time doesn’t heal wounds. It’s what you do with that time that matters. A programme of psychological support and active and involved social systems can do amazing work when it comes to recovering from the past.

Alexander & Klein (2009) Kidnapping and hostage taking: a review of effects, coping and resilience, Journal of Royal Society of Medicine, 102

Giebels et al (2005) The hostage experience, Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 12

Hanbury & Romano (2013) Adjusting to life after being held hostage or kidnapped. American Psychological Association

Navia & Ossa (2003) Family functioning, coping & psychological adjustment in victims and their families following kidnapping, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16