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Pyromania: Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: David White
Pyromania is a rare psychiatric condition that is often vague or difficult to understand. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines pyromania, how it is diagnosed, and briefly explore some of the treatments that are used to overcome the disorder.

What is Pyromania?

Due to a rising influence of crime shows on television or the proliferation of websites devoted to interests in criminality, people have developed a much greater understanding of the causes of certain crime-related illnesses. Yet, it is unfortunate that this is the primary source of information for many people because it has the great potential to lead to misunderstandings of certain symptoms or diagnoses. For example, the sensationalizing of certain mental illnesses has characterized some behavior, like pyromania, as the behavior of a psychopath, when it is, in fact, much more complicated.

Pyromania is a disorder in which a person is incapable of resisting the urge to intentionally start fires. Rather than setting a fire as an act of simple destruction, pyromaniacs often tend to set fires in order to relieve profound feelings of stress or anxiety.

A pyromaniac derives pleasure or relief from the setting of fires.
fire

It is important to differentiate pyromania from arson, with the latter of the two generally being driven by personal gain or profit motive. In a clinical sense, pyromania falls into the category of impulse control disorders, which are characterized by an inability to resist temptation or the compulsion to do something that could be harmful or destructive. There are several reasons why a person would develop such a disorder, but it is often related to the feelings of pleasure that are derived from the act of destruction.

Symptoms of Pyromania

The most obvious symptom of pyromania is, of course, that someone derives pleasure from setting something on fire. Because nearly everyone has accidentally, or perhaps intentionally, started a fire at one point in their lives, the distinguishing factor between accidental firesetting and pyromania is frequency.

For example, if a friend tells you that they started a fire recently, you would likely assume that it was an accident or, at least, a juvenile behavior. If, however, you find out that they not only intentionally started one fire last week, but seven fires, then a case could be made for a diagnosis of pyromania.

In most cases, these incidents are preceded by a serious build of stress or anxiety. For pyromaniacs, the act of destroying something with fire serves as an immediate release of that stress, which can also be accompanied by a flood of chemicals from the brain's reward center. As a result of the chemical reward, the behavior becomes somewhat addictive and will continuously be used to relieve stress or anxiety.

Often times, diagnosing pyromania can be difficult because a person that sets fires won't necessarily always set large things on fire, like a house, but might be more inclined to start a trash can fire in the backyard. Moreover, firesetting is not an uncommon behavior in children, who are constantly experimenting with deviant behaviors and pushing social boundaries. Therefore, arriving at a diagnosis of pyromania requires that a pattern of behavior and frequency be established to ensure that the activities are not merely juvenile destructive behaviors.

Treatment

Given the serious risks of death and destruction posed by pyromania, early intervention and treatment for those living with the disorder is crucial. If a diagnosis of pyromania has been made, treatment will often depend on the individual. If the behavior is recognized early, individuals can often find success through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which generally involves one-on-one talk therapy. In this case, the goal of CBT is to identify the event or feeling that started the behavior and then work to replace negative stress reduction (i.e., firesetting) with more positive management techniques.

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