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The Burning Desire of a Pyromaniac

written by: Debbie Roome • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 6/24/2011

Pyromania is an impulse control disorder whereby the sufferer succumbs to impulses to set fire to a building or area.

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    What is Pyromania?

    Pyromaniac characters often feature in movies and crime shows and this has given the general public a fair idea of what the condition involves. The act of pyromania is impulsive rather than carefully planned and this often leads to the person being apprehended sooner rather than later. It is regarded as an impulse control disorder and is also related to OCD spectrum disorders. Statistics have shown the majority of pyromaniacs are male and most of them are adults. While children and teenagers do start fires, many do so out of curiosity and not because it is an uncontrollable impulse. While their actions may resemble those of a pyromaniac, their motivation and feelings will not be the same.

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    What Causes Pyromania?

    Pyromania is grouped together with other conditions such as pathological gambling, hair pulling also known as trichotillomania, kleptomania and intermittent explosive disorder. It is believed that all impulse control disorders have genetic, neurobiological and sociological factors involved in their development. In addition to impulse control disorders, many people also suffer from related psychiatric conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder or eating disorders.

    Pyromania like other impulse control disorders can begin and worsen during periods of personal or family stress. It is believed that part of fire setting is the release of pent-up emotion and the following satisfaction brings temporary release. However the cycle will generally continue until the person is caught. Pyromaniacs seldom seek help and many seem to enjoy the power of razing a building or seeing a fire raging out of control.

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    The Connection Between OCD, Impulse Control Disorders and Pyromania

    Impulse control disorders (ICDs) are characterized by repetitive behaviors and a seeming inability to control these behaviors. Defining criteria include the following:

    • The inability to resist an impulse to perform an act that is harmful
    • A growing sense of tension or arousal before engaging in the act
    • A sense of pleasure, gratification, or release of tension immediately after committing the act.

    A person with pyromania will continue with their destructive behavior even when they know their actions could lead to arrest and imprisonment.

    Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by cycles of obsessions and compulsions. The compulsive actions of the sufferer will usually give transient relief before the obsessions start up again. OCD and ICDs are connected and a pyromaniac may display OCD behaviors in other areas of their life.

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    Symptoms of Pyromania

    Impulse control disorders are characterized by a person’s lack of impulse control. Sufferers typically experience feelings of growing excitement and tension before acting on their impulses and these make it hard for them to stop what they are doing. In the case of pyromania, the person will generally feel relief, pleasure and a sense of gratification after the fire is lit.

    There are a number of diagnostic criteria that must be present for pyromania to be diagnosed. These are as follows:

    • The repeated and deliberate setting of fires
    • The fires are not set in an effort to gain financially, express political opinions, to hide a crime, to express anger, or because of impaired judgement. Nor are they set as a result of terrorism, delusions, substance abuse, dementia, mental retardation or brain damage
    • The person setting the fire experiences tension and a sense of arousal beforehand and this is followed by pleasure and satisfaction once the fire is burning.
    • The fire setting cannot be accounted for by any other condition such as a manic episode, a conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder

    It has been noted that many pyromaniacs have an obsession with fire fighters, fire-fighting equipment, fire alarms and the response to a fire. They often join the crowd watching a fire being put out and gain satisfaction and relief from watching the fire burn. The sense of tension and subsequent pleasure that a person gains from setting fires is normally extreme and overrides any natural concerns for the property targeted or the people that may be in or near to it. A pyromaniac may target old abandoned buildings or warehouses as these are generally easy to access and the lack of security lessens the risk of being caught out.

    Pyromania is a serious disorder and one that will not disappear by itself. A sufferer may go through phases of heightened activity if they are stressed, and without treatment, they will keep on setting fires. They seldom seek treatment and help so it is essential for friends or family members to step in if they suspect pyromania.

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