Kleptomania: Definition, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Have you ever stolen something, like a cookie from the cookie jar? That's one thing, but there are people who have really serious urges to steal and they are not bank robbers either. Find out more about this condition in this lesson.

What is Kleptomania?

When you say someone is a maniac, what does it mean? Probably that they're a bit insane. That's because -mania is Greek for insanity. This suffix, combined with klepto-, which means to steal, becomes the word kleptomania. In short, kleptomania is an urge to steal something, but not because the person wants to use the stolen item for themselves or because they want to gain from the theft financially.

So, a bank robber who loves stealing cash to support his hedonistic lifestyle wouldn't count as a kleptomaniac. A kleptomaniac, on the other hand, would be more likely to steal things they really have no use for and sometimes have very little financial value whatsoever. Kleptomaniacs also do not steal as a result of anger, vengeance, hallucination, or delusion.

Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder. An impulse control disorder refers to a disorder where a person cannot resist the impulse to perform something that is harmful to themselves and/or society. An impulse is an uncontrollable urge to perform an act of some sort. The term impulse control disorder also implies that the person has problems with emotional and behavioral self-control while trying to resist the temptation of performing a harmful act.

Kleptomania involves compulsive stealing as well. The word compulsion implies an uncontrollable and repetitive action. Meaning, a person with kleptomania has a recurrent failure to resist an impulse to steal. A person with kleptomania may feel a lot of tension prior to the theft, a sense of relief during the theft, a lot of guilt after the theft, and then an irresistible urge to steal again sometime thereafter.

A person with kleptomania has an uncontrollable urge to steal.

Causes of Kleptomania

No one is sure why kleptomania occurs. It may be that low levels of a biochemical in the brain, called serotonin, may make a person more prone to impulsive behaviors. Imbalance in other biochemicals called opioids may make it difficult for a person to resist an urge. Also, because the act of stealing brings pleasure, it may release potentially addictive biochemicals called dopamine. This reinforces the behavior.

Substance abuse, injuries to the head, degenerative neurological conditions like Parkinson's disease, as well as some tumors have been linked to various impulse control disorders and they may play a role in causing kleptomania as well as a result.

Treatment for Kleptomania

Like many psychiatric disorders, kleptomania may need to be treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Since scientists believe low levels of serotonin may be involved, a drug that increases the levels of serotonin may be used. Because an imbalance of opioids may be to blame, then drugs that block the action of opioids may be given.

Cognitive behavior therapy is also used to treat kleptomania. Many techniques are used in this type of therapy. One of them is known as covert sensitization. So, a person with kleptomania would be asked to imagine stealing something, then suffering the negative consequences of this theft like an embarrassing mug shot all over the Internet, a criminal record, the loss of a job, jail time, and so forth. Imagination can also be used in systematic desensitization, which is where the person sees himself or herself controlling their urge to steal and uses relaxation techniques to help them with this, many of which are similar to meditation.

Another technique is called aversion therapy. This is the association of a mildly painful act with the urge to steal. For example, the person may be asked to hold their breath until they become uncomfortable when they are thinking of stealing.

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