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 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

While there has been limited research conducted on pyromania treatment due to it being a rare condition, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has shown promise in helping people identify destructive thoughts that have led to firesetting behaviors. Several CBT techniques including covert sensitization, imaginal desensitization and aversion therapy can be used to help control firesetting impulses. Although not tested in any controlled trials, certain medications may be helpful in addressing impulsive behaviors, such as pyromania, including antidepressants, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants and naltrexone. Lifestyle changes including relaxation and social skills training can help individuals learn to control stressors in a healthy way. Additionally, fire safety education can help bring awareness to the dangers of pyromania and the potential harm it can cause.

Pyromania and 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 similar to 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 impulse control 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.

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