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Stalking is a pattern of unwanted contact or behavior that leads someone to feel upset, anxious, or scared for his or her safety.

Stalking is a consistent and intentional pattern of behavior as opposed to one or two isolated incidents. It persists after the individual has asked the stalker to stop contacting them.

What Is Stalking?

The legal definition of stalking varies by state, but the United States Department of Justice defines the term as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.”

In addition to instilling deep distress, stalking can also escalate to a physical attack, sexual assault, or murder. It’s difficult for a target to determine a stalker’s trajectory or identify if and how stalking behavior will intensify.

Stalking constitutes one form of Intimate Partner Violence, according to the CDC, along with physical violence, sexual violence, and psychological aggression.

What are the signs of stalking?

Stalking behavior can include the following:

• Knowing the person’s schedule, tracking their whereabouts, or physically following them

• Repeatedly sending texts, calls, or emails

• Unexpectedly showing up at the person’s home, workplace, or school

• Delivering unwanted gifts

• Stealing the person’s possessions

• Threatening the person or their friends and family

• Other behaviors that lead to feeling unsafe, harassed, or monitored

How common is stalking?

About 15 percent of women and 6 percent of men in the U.S. have experienced stalking at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, representing 18.3 million women and 6.5 million men. When stalking occurs, it’s frequently in the context of a breakup.

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What Leads to Stalking Behavior?

Stalking encompasses a desire to exert control over a victim. That drive could emerge from a romantic relationship, for instance warding off suitors or trying to win over a new partner. It could arise from the fantasy of a relationship formed entirely in the person’s mind, such as in the case of celebrity stalking. Or it could have its roots in a mental health condition, such as borderline personality disorder.

Why do people become stalkers?

Perpetrators are often motivated to control, humiliate, frighten, manipulate, embarrass, or take revenge on the victim. Romantic motivations are also at play, such as wooing a new mate or scaring away other potential suitors.

Mental health conditions often appear in those who become stalkers—research suggests that half of one sample of stalkers had a disorder such as antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder. Borderline is particularly prominent in women stalkers.

Are there different types of stalkers?

As researchers continue to study the topic, they’ve put forth different categories of stalking such as romantic (stalking a former partner), lust (a serial predator), love-scorned (rebuffed after expressing interest in someone), celebrity (stalking a famous figure), political (motivated by ideological agreement or disagreement), revenge (fueled by anger or resentment), and cases of murder for hire.

How to Respond to a Stalker

Stalking victims often struggle to understand and report the offense. They may believe that such behavior “isn’t that big a deal” or that “it’ll stop eventually.”

If stalking occurs after a breakup, it can be difficult to determine whether the person is struggling to move on or developing threatening tendencies. Society has also tended to romanticize the idea of a dramatic, relentless pursuit of love, which may contribute to the confusion.

Stalking ultimately crosses the line when the victim feels in danger or threatened. If they feel that their life is in jeopardy, they should call 911. Otherwise, they should report it to their local police department.

What steps can victims take to protect themselves from their stalker?

In addition to to reporting a stalker, victims can take the following steps:

• Avoid the stalker as much as possible.

• Explicitly state that communication should end; do not respond to further communication.

• Maintain a log of the stalker’s actions, including communication, unwanted visits, and police reports filed

• Become educated about technology-related security measures.

• Find a local organization for support, information, and safety planning.

When does post-breakup communication become stalking?

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish when normal communication after a breakup verges on stalking—especially when television shows and movies romanticize the chase for a love interest. But when communication after a split becomes frightening and leads the victim to alter aspects of daily life, the line has been crossed. Likewise, criminal stalking often does not represent frequent messaging or harassment but fear for the person’s safety.

The Psychological Toll of Being Stalked

Stalkers seek to wield power and gain control over their victims. Persistent communication, tracking, and threats lead the target to feel unsettled and on edge.

Stalking can lead victims to feel nervous, stressed, and anxious. They may have trouble sleeping or experience nightmares. They may lose their appetite. And they may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress or depression.

Research suggests that many women who have been stalked experienced symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder such as hypervigilance, flashbacks, and avoidance. The unwanted behaviors most associated with those symptoms are receiving threatening calls and texts.

Victims may also take measures to protect themselves that fundamentally alter or interfere with the way they would otherwise live their lives, such as taking time away from work or school, changing jobs, or moving away.

What is the emotional cost of stalking?

The mental health conditions that result from stalking tend to be depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms such as difficulty sleeping and avoiding certain locations. The two factors that seem to exact the greatest psychological toll on women facing a stalker are  whether the pursuit is active—if the stalker follows the person or shows up unexpectedly—and aggression—if the stalker threatens or commits violence toward the victim, her property, or her loved ones.

What is the emotional cost of cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking can be equally or more distressing than other forms of stalking, even though the perpetrator is not physically present and may even be far away. With the victim unable to see or identify the stalker, or know when they will next act, the unpredictability of cyberstalking can be deeply disturbing. It can lead to anxiety, obsessive thoughts, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms of depression or trauma.

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