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Table of Contents

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Lesson 9 Coping with Captivity

Coping is a rational mental process used by hostages to deal with and adjust to the problems of a difficult environment. Unlike defense mechanisms that are mostly unconscious reactions based on personality, coping involves conscious and deliberate thoughts and actions. Coping includes such innovative behaviors as adjusting to living conditions, maintaining dignity and respect, dealing with fear, maintaining mental and physical fitness, and building rapport with captors.

Living Conditions

The living conditions hostages have endured vary from incident to incident. Hostages have been held for days in a bus, airliner or train where heat or lack of heat and lack of adequate water, food, and toilet facilities were almost unbearable. During the seizure of an office or residence, hostages may be in familiar, comfortable surrounding where they have worked or lived. But kidnap victims are frequently forced to live in makeshift prisons located in attics, basements or remote hideouts. These prisons may be quite small and in some cases prevent the hostage from easily standing or moving around. Sleeping and toilet facilities may be poor, consisting of a cot or mattress and a bucket or tin can for body waste, or a hostage may be forced to soil his living space as well as himself.

The hostage-takers may move you to different holding areas to keep you hidden from authorities. To assist authorities in locating you, you should leave your fingerprints wherever possible in your living area.

Dignity and Self-Respect

Maintaining one’s dignity and self-respect can be very difficult, but it is vital to your survival. Your dignity and self-respect may be the keys to retaining your status as a human being in the eyes of the hostage-takers. If you can build empathy while maintaining your dignity, you can potentially lessen the aggression of a captor. Most people cannot inflict pain on another person unless that person becomes dehumanized or turned into a symbol of their hatred.


Fear of death is a hostage-taker’s most important tool. They use it to control, intimidate, and wear down the hostage and the negotiators. The fear of death is usually greatest during the first few hours of capture. Hostage-takers may induce fear by loading and unloading weapons in the hostage’s presence, displaying excesses of temper, resorting to physical abuse, and staging mock executions which are “mercifully” stopped at the last minute. As this fear subsides, a hostage may begin to hear he “owes” his life to the captors who have “allowed” him to live. Anticipate isolation and terrorist efforts to confuse you. Fear of dying is real, and it can become overwhelming, especially during the early phase of captivity. However, you must try to maintain emotional control in order to stay mentally alert. Fight despair and depression by keeping a positive mental outlook. Remember, although death is a real possibility, most hostages walk out of the ordeal.

Physical and Mental Fitness

If abducted, you should develop and maintain a daily physical fitness program. It will help you ward off boredom and can reduce stress. Staying physically fit might be the deciding factor if an escape opportunity presents itself, and you have to run or walk a considerable distance to reach safety. It may be hard to exercise because of cramped space or physical restraints, but you can run in place or perform isometric exercises. However, you should avoid excessive exercise that could result in injury.

It is important to make some mental link to the outside world. To stimulate your mind, you can read, write, daydream, or use your imagination to build something step-by-step (a house, a car, a piece of furniture, etc.). Ask the hostage-takers for reading materials or a radio. If possible, communicate with and try to reassure fellow hostages. If it is your day of worship, mentally walk through the various parts of the worship service. Establish a slow, methodical routine for every task.

Typically, hostage-takers want to keep their hostages alive and well. Eat whatever food is available to maintain your strength. If you need medicine, ask for exactly what you need. If your abductors want you alive, they are not likely to take chances by providing you with the wrong medicine. A side effect of captivity for some hostages is weight loss. Although this may be considerable, it generally does not cause health problems. Hostages may also suffer gastrointestinal upset including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or constipation. Although these symptoms can be debilitating, they are usually not life-threatening.

Establishing Rapport

Rapport-building techniques help you make a transition from a faceless symbol who has been dehumanized to one who is human again. However, don’t exaggerate your human emotions by begging or crying. An emotional outburst could spread panic and fear among the other hostages and could be viewed as a disgusting display of cowardice by the hostage-takers. You must portray yourself as a person rather than an object by maintaining your dignity, self-respect, and apparent sincerity. You must attempt to establish rapport with your hostage-taker, but you must do it with dignity and self-respect. This rapport may save your life. You should:

  • Make eye contact with the hostage-takers.
  • Greet the hostage-takers and use personal names.
  • Smile.
  • Talk to the hostage-takers. Especially talk about your family and show photos if you have them.
  • Determine if you have common interests; e.g., sports, hygiene, food, etc.
  • Listen to the hostage-taker. If he wants to talk about his cause, act interested. You may explain that you might not agree with him, but you’re interested in his point view.
  • Avoid appearing overly attentive or interested, the hostage takers may view this as patronizing or insincere.
  • Avoid arguing with the hostage-takers. Avoid escalating tensions with words such as gun, kill, or punish that could cause the hostage-takers to single you out as being argumentative or combative and therefore a threat to the their authority. Bring up neutral topics at critical times to defuse arguments and reduce tensions.
  • Avoid emotionally charged topics of religion, economics, and politics.
  • Not refuse favors offered by your captors if doing so will aggravate them or cause further harm to the health and safety of all hostages. However, do not accept favorable treatment at the expense of other hostages. Terrorists commonly employ this controlling tactic to cause division and distrust among the hostage group.


David L. Heiserman, Editor

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All Rights Reserved

Revised: June 06, 2015