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Pyromania: causes, symptoms and effects of this disorder

Pyromania: causes, symptoms and effects of this disorder

September 22, 2022

Pyrós. This Greek word refers to one of the four primordial elements of nature for the Greeks, fire. This element has presented an interesting dichotomy throughout history, being able to symbolize energy, dynamism, warmth, affection and passion, but also hatred, destruction and madness.

The fire has been since antiquity an element that has caused great fascination and respect. But nevertheless, some people have an excessive fixation on it , needing to provoke it in order to reassure its tension and anxiety, calming its impulses independently of the serious effects it may cause in the environment or other people or animals. These people suffer from the disorder known as pyromania.

Pyromania: a disorder of impulse control

Pyromania is a disorder of impulse control , which are characterized by the presence of an uncontrollable need to carry out a harmful or illegal act, without taking into account the repercussions of this. In these types of disorders a high level of tension suddenly appears that they need to alleviate by committing the act in question, after which they feel a high level of well-being. This process is largely reminiscent of that observed in anxiety disorders, dependency and other substance use disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In the case of pyromania, the diagnosis is carried out before individuals who have deliberately set fires on more than one occasion, feeling tension before provoking it and producing a high sense of well-being after the start of the fire or after seeing its consequences . The provocation of the fire is not due to the pursuit of an economic, personal or social benefit. These individuals present at all times a high fascination by observing the flames .

What is it and what is not pyromania

The fact that a human being causes a fire can be due to a large number of causes. For example, unintentional fires can occur and often occur due to uncooperative actions or carelessness such as leaving flammable materials, cigarette butts or bottles in areas with vegetation. In this case we would not be faced with a case of pyromania, since its diagnosis requires that the fire is intentional .

One of the labels that produce the most confusion and that is often confused with the pyromania is that of incendiary. Arsonists are those subjects who, like arsonists, deliberately cause a fire, but unlike the latter do so with a clear objective, pursuing a specific benefit or causing harm to another person or institution.

The production of fire due to other mental disorders such as schizophrenia, mania, dementia or substance poisoning is not considered pyromania either, nor are the fires provoked by subjects with antisocial personality disorder (or disocial in children).

Profile of the arsonist

While all people are different from each other, with large individual differences that mark one's identity, common patterns can often be observed among different subjects. This happens both at the non-clinical population level and at the clinical level.

In the case of individuals suffering from pyromania or pyromaniacs, it is possible to consider the existence of a typical profile. About 90% of individuals who have pyromania are young men , which tend to suffer emotional problems and usually have a history full of frustrations on a personal level, often with a certain level of resentment due to it.

In this disorder the presence of an unsociable personality prevails, as well as a lower than average IQ (although this is not true in all cases). These are subjects with a high level of frustration, a sense of existential emptiness, a high sense of inferiority that present feelings of little control, power or value, which try to replace with the sense empowerment in causing the fire.

It is also frequent that these subjects come from broken families , in those who have suffered abuse and / or sexual abuse in childhood. In the same way, the complete absence of a father figure is observed in many cases.

At the occupational level, its great attraction for fire encourages arsonists to try to link to related works or from which they have access to their object of stimulation, fire. In this way it is common that they try to enter firefighting bodies, or even participate as volunteers in firefighting tasks. It is common that many of them end up helping to extinguish the fires that they provoke, as a way to be able to observe the effects of flames first hand.

Pyromaniac behaviors are, along with the mistreatment and mutilation of animals and extremely violent actions and lack of empathy possible indicators of psychopathy.

Etiology (causes) of the disorder

There are multiple possible causes of this disorder.

On a psychological level, the presence of a high level of sensation seeking is considered , together with the need for power and attention derived from a lack of social contact and skills to create or maintain links with others can be the cause of pyromania. It has also been considered the provocation of fires as a way to manifest deep feelings such as anger at the feeling of inferiority. Finally, parental models that abound in violence, abuse and neglect of the child, or traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse in childhood, can also lead to this type of disorder.

At the neurobiological level, it has been correlated, as well as the rest of impulse disorders, with the presence of low levels of serotonin in the brain, as well as a dysregulation in dopamine and noradrenaline. The presence of hypoglycaemia has also been observed in many pyromaniacs.

Also the temporal lobe and the limbic system have some participation in this disorder, due to the management of impulses and emotions. The frontal lobe and the orbitofrontal cortex are also involved, failing in the process of inhibiting behavior.

Possible treatments

Pyromania is a less prevalent disorder. Its treatment has focused predominantly on cognitive-behavioral therapy, although treatments have been carried out from other theoretical aspects, such as psychodynamics.

The treatment in question is based on the promotion of impulse control and self-control through techniques of behavior modification, conflict resolution techniques, self-detection of the level of tension and the application of relaxation techniques such as those of breathing. These techniques promote that the individual is more capable of dealing with the problems, but for the treatment to be efficient, the patient's empowerment must also be worked on, helping to work on self-image and self-esteem, as well as personal interactions. Working empathy can also be useful.

It must be borne in mind that the arsonist does not usually go to consultation, usually being taken by the patient's relatives or by court order, since most of them do not usually show remorse for their actions, despite being aware of the danger they involve. Likewise, it is very important to carry out prevention tasks since childhood.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychatric Association. (2002). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Revised text DSM-IV-TR. Masson Barcelona.
  • Belloch, Sandín and Ramos (2008). Manual of psychopathology. Madrid. MacGraw-Hill (vol 1 and 2). Revised edition
  • Grant, J.E. & Won, K.S. (2007). Clinical characteristics and psychiatric comorbidity of pyromania. J Clin Psychiatry. 68 (11): 1717-22
  • Santos, J.L; García, L.I .; Calderón, M.A .; Sanz, L.J .; de los Ríos, P .; Left, S .; Román, P .; Hernangómez, L .; Navas, E .; Thief, A and Álvarez-Cienfuegos, L. (2012). Clinical psychology. CEDE Preparation Manual PIR, 02. CEDE. Madrid.

Impulse Control Disorder ¦ Treatment and Symptoms (September 2022).

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