Many people wonder, “Why don’t kidnapping victims like Jacee Dugard try to escape when they have the chance? Why do they bond with their perpetrator?” Research shows that these behavioral patterns are typically experienced by sexually assaulted people; abuse, domestic violence, and incest victims; cult members; and those who survive kidnapping and hostage situations.
We have to step away from what we think is logical and discover how trauma affects people’s physical and mental health. Additionally, we need to consider that trauma has a greater impact on children than on adults because they are mentally, physically, and emotionally more vulnerable. The underlying cause of many survivors’ behaviors might be physiological and psychological trauma reactions such as escape paralysis, which is created by a combination of nervous system responses, conditioning, dependency, and a phenomenon called trauma bonding.
During a traumatic event, such as abuse, assault, or kidnapping, our logic is turned off and our nervous system automatically goes into a survival-mode (“fight, flight, freeze”) response. If we cannot run away or are unable to fight, we go into a freeze state, unable to move or act.
Peter Levine, a psycho-physiological trauma specialist, explains that this is a leftover state from our animal instinct in which animals pretend they are dead so the perpetrator will lose interest. Additionally, when physical and psychological pain becomes too much to tolerate, the mind distances itself from the experience by numbing the body and the psyche, which is called dissociation. Feelings, emotions, thoughts, and memories are shut off, causing one to lose touch with reality and feel detached or estranged from others. Unfortunately, we cannot override our nervous system by logic alone; it will likely remain stuck in the survival loop of freeze and dissociation unless the nervous system has been regulated and the psychological and physical wounds are healed.
Van der Kolk, a trauma researcher, says, “Trauma interferes with the ability to meet daily needs and perform the most basic task.” Therefore, it will be difficult for anyone to perform basic undertakings or think of taking actions to escape or change a situation when one is faced with such traumatic experiences.
Part of feeling paralyzed and avoiding escape may also occur if the perpetrator instills emotional and physical conditioning in the victim, such as fear, threat, or pain. With enough repetition, the brain circuitry becomes conditioned to make certain associations, known as Hebbian learning (“cells that fire together wire together”), so that a person may feel too paralyzed to escape, avoid certain behavior, and distrust his/her own judgment. This condition has been known to continue internally in the victim even when the abusive situation is over.
When a victim is dependent for food, shelter, and human interaction, the victim’s escape paralyses might deepen even further. Often, a captor uses a formula to deprive his/her victim of what they need to function (such as safety, sleep, and food) and punishes them with threat, pain, and isolation to create dependency. However, as humans, we tend to stay away from isolation and strive to have human contact. When the caregiver is the perpetrator and the only person with whom to attach, the victim will depend on the bond for survival and become anxiously obedient. This emotional attachment lessens the fear of survival because, if the victim bonds, historical data show that she/he is less likely to be killed. Bonding with tormentors is also known as the Stockholm Syndrome, a term that describes victims who attach to their captors and develop loyalty towards them as a way to adapt to the exploitative person/situation.
There are many people who are unable to leave their tormentors as a result of escape paralysis. This behavior might be created by a combination of survival mechanisms including trauma responses, victims’ conditioning, dependency, and trauma bonding. The good news is that there is hope for survivors. It is not a quick process but, with resources such as support and understanding of family, friends, and community, as well as therapy that addresses the nervous system and the psyche, healing can happen.
First published on Psychology Today.