The story of Jaycee Dugard's abduction is horrific for so many reasons. A popular morning news anchor summed up the way many of us feel about this story. We are stunned and traumatized by the details of the eighteen year ordeal. Yet, at the same time, we can't help but want more information to explain how this could happen. While the media hasn't specified all the details, we can speculate that she endured unspeakable acts and lived in inhumane conditions.
Why are we curious about such a tragedy? Perhaps it is because a story like this makes us ponder all the unanswered, gut-wrenching questions. For example, how could any human being do that to a child? How could anyone survive such an ordeal? What would I do if I had been in that situation? And, if you are a parent, what if that had been my child?
Here is the other question so many of us can't put to rest or truly understand--why didn't she simply run away when she had the opportunity?"
Psychologists have already come with a term to help explain this perplexing phenomena. It's called the Stockholm Syndrome. The Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological response that occasionally occurs in people who have been abducted or held hostage. The abductee doesn't resist and actually shows signs of loyalty or care to the person who took them. The person does so despite the dangerous and harmful things the abductor has done to them. Instead of hating the abductor, as one might assume, a psychological shift happens. The abducted person befriends their abductor and, at times, believes that the captor is really protecting them instead of potentially harming and controlling them. We can only assume that this may have happened to Jaycee.
While nothing can compare to the tragedy this little girl endured, we can use this term, "Stockholm Syndrome" to also understand how people become "abducted" by an eating disorder. If you have known someone with an eating disorder, you are all too familiar with the tenacity of this clinical diagnosis. Eating disorders take hold of someone's mind and just won't let go despite that fact that eating disorders are harmful, even potentially lethal. They rob people of their physical and emotional health. Living on minimal calories a day is extremely painful. Malnutrition can damage parts of your body beyond repair.
People often ask the same question of eating disorder patients. Why don't they just eat? Why don't they just end the eating disorder's captivity over them if it is seemingly in their reach? The answer is incredibly complex. There are many biological, social, and psychological reasons. However, one way to help people understand, particularly if they have never had an eating disorder, is that a person with an eating disorder has fallen into the Stockholm Syndrome.
Imagine that the eating disorder is like the abductor. The abductor makes the person do many things (starve themselves, binge and purging for hours, or run until exhaustion). In return, the eating disorder offers them a false sense of protection. Giving the message—if you are thin, things will be okay. It provides them with a temporary way to cope with life.
As a result, a person with an eating disorder begins to befriend the eating disorder and even try to defend it when other people show concern or try to treat it. They experience the same cognitive dissonance that people with the Stockholm Syndrome do—believing that the eating disorder is something that is trying to help not hurt them.
How can you get someone back from an eating disorder once they have been abducted? It takes time and treatment. Most of all, it takes compassion to help them find their way back to mindful eating, a truly balanced relationship with food. It is so much more complicated than, "just eat." It takes a team of persistent and dedicated professionals and supportive family/friends to help a person with an eating disorder become truly free from an eating disorder once their mind has been abducted by it.
Author of Eating Mindfully and 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food