What Is Pyromania?

The image many people often conjure in our mind of a pyromaniac is based on portrayals in movies and on television. A person with pyromania disorder is typically shown as someone with poor impulse control and often that set fires to cause death and destruction. While parts of this are accurate, pyromania disorder and the act of arson are often confused. You may find yourself asking ‘what is a pyromaniac’ if not simply being a person who sets fire systematically. The definition of pyromania states it is an impulse control disorder marked by obsession and compulsion to set fires. Where this differs from the common portrayal of a pyromaniac is that fire setting does not occur to serve another purpose. Pyromaniac fire setting is done simply to satisfy an obsessive desire to set fires. Arson, on the other hand, is used deliberately whether for some form of financial gain, to seek revenge, to express feelings or to provide concealment for criminal acts.

Symptoms of Pyromania

Pyromania disorder symptoms are unique form symptoms of other disorders that may include fire setting. The hallmark of pyromania symptoms is setting fire to relieve an obsessive impulse. Usually, before setting a fire, a person with pyromania will experience intense desire and emotional overload. This is similar in many ways to the obsessive desire to use drugs by people with substance use disorders. Once a fire is set, the pyromaniac experiences release which may vary from a feeling of overwhelming relief to, and in some cases, intense pleasure. Again, this very similar to the feeling experienced by a person with a substance use disorder who after experiencing intense craving uses drugs.

Causes of Pyromania

In looking at what causes pyromania there are two groups of factors—individual and environmental.

When considering the individual causes of pyromania, a person’s social life and experience are some of the most important factors. Some examples would be:

  • Being the victim of bullying
  • Lack of social supports including siblings or friendships
  • Lack of attention from adult caregivers
  • Inappropriate sexual urges

Environmental factors include early-life traumas and witness to pyromaniac behaviors as a child. For example, pyromania may be caused by:

  • Experiencing neglect as a child
  • Victim of physical or sexual abuse as a child
  • Watching older adolescents and adults set fires frequently

These factors that may cause pyromania are relatively common traits. Thus, it should not be assumed that someone with these traits is fated to be a pyromaniac. People diagnosed with pyromania disorder have a marked inability to control impulses and typically have several of these causative factors.

Diagnosing Pyromania Disorder

Pyromania disorder can be difficult to diagnose due to there being other disorders that may account for fire setting. Understanding a person’s emotional experience with fire setting is key to making an accurate diagnosis. It must be clear that a person is not setting fire to reach some other means such as financial gain, revenge, or to conceal a crime they have committed. In pyromania disorder, the pyromaniac sets fires specifically for the emotional release they experience from doing so.

Who is at Risk for Pyromania Disorder?

Most cases of pyromania disorder are found in children and adolescents. Pyromaniacs often have traits of antisocial personality disorder. They may have criminal charges and frequently display defiant and delinquent behaviors such as refusing to attend school, running away, and vandalism. Children and teens diagnosed with ADHD or adjustment disorders may be more likely to engage in pyromaniac behaviors. Often a person has recently or is currently undergoing a period of intense stress prior to the beginning of fire setting.

Pyromania Disorder Statistics

Pyromania is a very rare diagnosis. In one study conducted to attempt to identify the prevalence of pyromania, it was found that only 3 percent of individuals with multiple instances of fire-setting met the diagnostic criteria for pyromania disorder. The prevalence of this impulse control disorder within the general population would be significantly smaller than this, likely under 1% of the population. Pyromania statistics indicate that those meeting the diagnostic criteria are overwhelmingly male and Caucasian.

Pyromania Treatment

There has been limited research conducted on pyromania treatment due to it being a rare condition. Treatment of pyromania has been based largely on accepted treatments for other impulse control disorders. When considering the most appropriate treatment for pyromania, most consider medication and cognitive behavioral therapy to be the go-to options.

Medications for Treating Pyromania

At this time there have been no studies conducted on medication for pyromania. While there is no medication specifically indicated for pyromania there are several classes of medication that have been used with moderate success.

  • Antidepressants – Antidepressants have been used in some cases under the rationale that the underlying cause of pyromania is likely to stem from traumatic events and feelings of depression or isolation. Some theorize that by treating the emotional trigger for pyromania that a pyromaniac may not feel the same level of intensity a desire to set fires.
  • Mood Stabilizers – Mood stabilizers, like antidepressants, have been utilized due to commonly accepted theories on what causes a person to develop pyromania. Medical professionals who advocate for the use of mood stabilizers for pyromania are focused on the impulse control aspect of the disorder. It has been suggested that if a pyromaniac no longer has significant mood swings they may be less likely to feel the need to set fire to release emotional pain.
  • AntipsychoticsSome believe that pyromaniac fire setting occurs as a form of psychotic behaviors. The thought is that antipsychotic medication may prevent a person from losing touch with reality and as a result, prevent fire-setting behaviors.

Therapy for Treating Pyromania

While there is no evidence-based therapeutic approach for treating pyromania, there have been some promising results from the use of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more commonly known as the DSM, only mentions one possible course of treatment for pyromania in the most recent edition. This approach called cognitive behavioral therapy works to identify how a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are intertwined. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves challenging thoughts and beliefs that may be inaccurate to create behavioral change. It has been suggested that if a pyromaniac is able to learn to identify when they are experiencing the early stages of emotional tension building up, they can cope and release these emotions in a healthier way. It may also be possible for a person to identify faulty thinking patterns that have led to their fire-setting. If challenged and a new effective philosophy replaces the faulty belief, a person may no longer feel the compulsion to set fires.

Pyromania and Substance Abuse

The incidence of setting a fire by a person who is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is far higher than that of people who have been diagnosed with pyromania disorder. Even when only including those who have a pattern of fire setting when under the influence, the number outweighs the prevalence of pyromania. A person may find themselves asking how this is possible as it would seem these people who meet the criteria for pyromania disorder—one of the more controversial rule-out criteria for pyromania disorder is that a person cannot be under the influence at the time of the fire to receive this diagnosis.

Effects of Substance Abuse on Pyromania Disorder Symptoms

The debate on whether intoxication should be an exclusion criterion for pyromania has been heated. Many opinions have been brought forth by various mental health professionals. For those against keeping these exclusion criteria, the main argument is that the desire remains the same, but intoxication lowers inhibition enough to act on the urge to set a fire. Those who would like to keep the criteria as it currently stands argue that fire setting when intoxicated is more likely due to a substance use disorder or personality disorder.

Pyromania and Alcohol

If the pyromania statistics are considered with the inclusion of those who were intoxicated during fire setting the rate of pyromania would sharply increase. When the co-occurrence of fire setting and intoxication has been studied, alcohol has by far been the most common intoxicant. Alcohol, often called liquid courage for this reason among others, is frequently blamed for illicit behaviors due to its effect on a person’s inhibition. It is possible that those who have a pattern of fire setting when intoxicated have the urge and desire to set fires as an emotional release when sober but refrains knowing that this is a dangerous behavior as well as a criminal act. However, if this person has fantasized about fire setting and is undergoing a time of significant stress and then becomes intoxicated, their judgment is likely to be impaired making the act of fire setting more likely.

Pyromania and Marijuana

Like alcohol, marijuana has been shown to reduce inhibition and impair judgment. The full effects of marijuana abuse on the mind and body are not known and only in recent years have studies begun to delve into this arena. Early evidence has shown that habitual marijuana abuse may slow or otherwise impair a person’s ability to make decisions and weigh consequences leading to an increase in impulsive behaviors. It is culpable that marijuana abuse may for impulsive decisions to set a fire.

Pyromania and Stimulants

Stimulant drugs directly affect the neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, that influence impulsivity. For this reason, a person who has fire setting desires, if under the influence of stimulants, is significantly more likely to act on their desires. Some of the most commonly abused stimulants include:

With fire setting behaviors occurring at the highest rate among adolescents, it is particularly concerning that stimulant drugs may influence the probability of acting on fire setting desire. Children and adolescents are by far the highest legal consumers of stimulant medications such as Adderall and Ritalin due to ADHD diagnosis. Due to the high number of prescriptions in these age groups, there is also a higher likelihood of these medications being diverted and used by peers.

Drug Abuse as a Cause of Pyromania

Drug abuse has not been studied as a cause of pyromania. Some of the common effects of drug abuse include overall impaired judgment, poor decision-making skills, increased impulsivity, and increased high risk or thrill-seeking behaviors. It’s not difficult for the jump to be made to drug abuse is a possible cause for the onset of fire setting behaviors. Due to current standards for diagnosing if drug abuse is present during fire setting, a person may not be formally classified as a pyromaniac but if proponents for changing the criteria are successful, it is likely that drug abuse would be the top co-occurring disorder with pyromania.

Treatments for Pyromania with Co-Occurring Substance Abuse

While pyromania cannot officially be diagnosed with a co-occurring substance use disorder, many have found that providing treatment for both as if they are co-occurring diagnoses has the highest chance of success. The treatments available for pyromania when it co-occurs with substance use disorders are like those for stand-alone pyromania. Prior to beginning any form of treatment, it is recommended that a substance abuse assessment is completed to guide the course of treatment.

The specialized treatment programs at The Recovery Village are designed with the individual patient in mind. Our staff members have the experience and expertise to treat the most complex, challenging disorders, including phobic disorders complicated by substance abuse. If you, or someone you love, are struggling with addiction and mental illness, we encourage you to call our intake specialists at any time for information and support.

Pyromania: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
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