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Learning from Hostages by Rachel Briggs

It feels like a cliché to call 2020 a difficult year – “difficult” doesn’t even come close.

It’s been a once in a century global health catastrophe that has closed economies, deprived so many of the ability to provide for their families, taken the lives of over a quarter of a million Americans (at the time of writing), and left so many of us feeling isolated and anxious.
Thankfully, we enter the holidays with the positive news of a viable vaccine – pretty much the best holiday present any of us could have asked for. Finally, some light at the end of the tunnel.
At this time of year traditional for reflection, I’ve been thinking about the lessons I’ve learned over the years from the hundreds of former hostages I’ve gotten to know through my work with Hostage US, the non-profit I co-founded and led until a few months ago when I stepped down to return home to the UK.
You might be surprised to learn that around 200 Americans are kidnapped overseas each year – by terrorists in places like the Middle East and Afghanistan, criminals in Mexico or Latin America and by rogue states like Iran and North Korea.
Some were journalists bringing news into our homes, some were humanitarian workers ministering to those in need, others still were engineers like my uncle who was kidnapped on his way to work in Colombia almost 25 years ago, thankfully released unharmed several months later.
We’ve heard a lot of talk these past months about “resilience”; let me share the seven secrets of resilience I’ve learned from the former hostages I’ve had the privilege to help through their recovery.


Every hostage I know that has survived captivity well, established and maintained a routine from day one. This can be difficult in captivity, where you can’t dictate when the lights will be on or off, whether you will be able to go to the bathroom that day, or whether you will be moved to another location at a moment’s notice. A simple and easily adaptable routine is critical for mental health and allows you to take control when you seem to have none, just as so many of us have felt this year.


Not easy if you are a hostage, but even in captivity, physical exercise is possible. Some hostages walk around their cell, others do simple exercises on the spot if they are chained up. Being sedentary for long periods brings all manner of health problems, and we know that your fitness level influences your chances of surviving COVID-19. If hostages can do it, so can we.


Living with uncertainty can be debilitating; for months now, we have been on edge and unsure what the future will bring; will we lose our job and our health insurance? Become sick? Need to care for a loved one? Will our kids be sent home from school? It’s been overwhelming. Hostages, who never know what’s coming from one minute to the next, talk about the importance of focusing on now. Some who have endured solitary confinement go further and describe the joy of developing their inner life. None of this stops the future being uncertain or bad, but it makes coping in the here and now so much easier.


One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from former hostages is perspective. When I’m having a bad day, I often think to myself, “well, if this is the worst that’s going to happen to me today, I’m doing well”. So many talk about the simple power of hope; things are bad, but they could be worse, and they can get better again. Human beings are remarkable animals pre-programed to survive. We will get through this.


For hostages, this isn’t straightforward; it’s true that some receive letters from their families, but most are entirely separated. So often, they find creative ways to connect – through their memories, through imagined conversations; one hostage told me he mentally drove the route to his daughter’s house every morning during captivity to feel connected to her. We are lucky to have phones, email, FaceTime, social media – it’s vital we make the effort to stay connected. We are social beings and isolation is one of the biggest causes of depression.


Undoubtedly, life is really tough for a lot of Americans right now. As far as possible, we must seek out opportunities within our adversities. So many hostages I know chose growth over collapse, hope over despair; it didn’t stop them struggling or erase their problems, but a growth mindset sets us up to recover quicker and better.
Can’t concentrate on reading? Watch a movie. Can’t afford your gym membership? Take a walk. Money tight for groceries? Focus on home cooking.
2020 is a year none of us will forget, and we can’t predict the extent of its impact yet; so many people are suffering. As you sit down for dinner over the holidays and notice those empty chairs around your table normally occupied by relatives who can’t travel to be with you this year, spare a thought for the families missing their loved one who is held hostage overseas. If hostages can survive and thrive after captivity, we can get through this. ◙

About Rachel Briggs

Rachel Briggs OBE was Founding Executive Director of Hostage US, an independent non- profit that supports American hostages and their families. She was also Founding Director of Hostage UK (now Hostage International), the world’s first support organization for returning hostages and their families.

She has two decades experience, working at the highest levels with governments, multinational corporations and non-profits on issues of community safety, security, terrorism, foreign policy and national security. she has directly influenced policy at the national and international levels, changing security and risk practices in the private sector and is known as a highly effective non-profit leader who forges collaborations with non-profits in the same sector.

She was driven to this career by her own family’s experience of hostage-taking; her uncle was kidnapped in Colombia in 1996 when she was studying at university. She saw the impact of his captivity on her family and his and experienced firsthand the challenges hostages face when they return home. These experiences led her to work on security issues and, ultimately, to found two victims’ organizations to ensure other families and hostages would not have to go through this lonely and terrifying experience alone and without specialist help.

She is a regular commentator on these issues; her work and its impact has been covered extensively, including a 2017 personal profile in The New York Times, and publications in The Washington Post; The New Yorker; Financial Times; Guardian; NPR; CNN; Fox News; Sky News; BBC News. A prolific writer, Rachel has authored dozens of reports, academic and journal articles and book chapters. She also speaks publicly to share her experiences.

She is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Center on Cooperative Security, an Associate Fellow of Chatham House, and a Member of Jim’s Legacy Advisory Council for The James W Foley Legacy Foundation.

Rachel was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty The Queen in 2014 for services to hostage families and kidnap victims overseas.

For more information about Hostage US, please visit please visit

For more information about Hostage International, please visit

To read more from Rachel, visit her blog

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