What Is Pyromania? Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated June 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Pyromania is a rare mental health disorder characterized by a fascination with fire and lighting fires. Those who experience this type of impulse control disorder tend to compulsively set fires, usually in an attempt to relieve anxiety or other kinds of tension. 

While the majority of people who meet the criteria for pyromania do not want to hurt anyone or damage property, this risk is inherent in the way this disorder manifests via firesetting behaviors. That’s why getting treatment for pyromania is vital for keeping the individual and the people and property they come in contact with safe from the negative consequences of purposeful fire-setting. Read on to learn more about this rare disorder, including the causes, symptoms, and how pyromania is treated.

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What is the difference between pyromania and arson?

Because there are many common misconceptions about pyromania, it’s useful to begin with an explanation of what it is and is not. At its core, it’s an impulse disorder marked by a compulsive need to set fires in order to stave off or release some kind of tension.

Pyromania is very rare, estimated to affect 1% of adults and between 2.4% and 3.5% of adolescents.

Someone who commits arson and someone with pyromania are not inherently the same. An arsonist is someone who deliberately sets fire to buildings, forests, or other places or property, and they will actively seek out opportunities to do so. Someone with pyromania, in contrast, typically does not want to damage property but feels a compulsive need to set fires nevertheless. The key difference between the two is the intent of setting fire to something rather than action. 

Arsonists may set fires for a number of different reasons, such as revenge or financial gain, and can be charged with a felony as a consequence of their actions. A person with pyromania could also have to face consequences for their actions if they legally qualify as arson, but their clinical diagnosis could make a difference in sentencing. 

It’s also worth noting that in separate studies of 113 arsonists, 191 state hospital patients with a history of fire setting, and 27 female fire-setters—331 individuals with a history of fire setting in total—none were diagnosed with pyromania by forensic mental health experts. These findings were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and relied on information from the American Psychiatric Association Publishing Association. They support just how rare the disorder is and could also suggest that those with this mental illness don’t commonly end up engaging in criminal acts as a result, though more research would be needed to accurately draw such conclusions. (Mental health research is constantly evolving, so older sources may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.)

Risk factors for developing pyromania

Pyromania is often associated with conduct disorder, particularly in younger individuals, but exactly what causes pyromania is not yet fully understood. However, research has uncovered a set of risk factors that may predispose an individual to develop this disorder. These include:

  • Being male

  • Having below-average intelligence

  • Environmental factors like growing up in harsh or frustrating circumstances

  • A history of parental neglect, childhood abuse, or trauma-related mental disorders*

  • A genetic component such as family history of pyromania or other mental health disorders and mood disorders

  • A comorbid mental health disorder (anxiety, depression, a learning disorder, a substance use disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, other disruptive impulse control and conduct disorders)

  • An imbalance of certain brain chemicals

Ultimately, the reason an individual might develop pyromania depends on several factors that are not fully understood by modern research.

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Signs and symptoms of pyromania

There is a fairly clear set of signs and symptoms that can indicate pyromania. Pyromania may only apply if the individual’s behaviors can’t be explained by another psychiatric disorder or other motivations (political beliefs, monetary gain, to cover up a crime, impaired judgment due to substance use).

Regularly burning things

The first symptom is deliberately setting fires on more than one occasion. These multiple episodes in which the individual deliberately starts fires can take a variety of different forms. Someone with pyromania may often burn holes in clothing or rugs or may burn paper or other materials in trash cans or over the stove, for example—especially at first. They might also have burn marks and scars on their bodies as a result of these behaviors. They may hoard matches and lighters, possibly playing with them regularly or lighting them just to watch the flames. It’s worth noting that pyromania can escalate over time, so a person with this disorder may start by lighting matches but not setting anything on fire at first. Over time, they may be drawn to setting small objects on fire, then larger ones, and so on. 

Specific feelings related to fire-setting

Again, intention is what often separates pyromania from pure arson or other behaviors that do not qualify as mental health disorders. Someone with this condition will typically be tense and/or excitable before setting a fire and will usually experience pleasure or relief afterward. This could range from relief to sexual gratification depending on the individual. This release typically constitutes their main motivation for burning things in any capacity, rather than the clear desire to harm others or damage property.

An attraction to all things fire-related 

An individual with pyromania may also be fascinated with other fires—even those that they don’t set themselves. They may be drawn to watching them either in person or on TV and hearing about fires that happen in other places. They might enjoy talking about fires and may seek out people who are like-minded or who work in fire-related jobs. They may be attracted to the firefighting industry in particular, and it’s not uncommon for them to spend time at fire departments.

Treatment for impulse control disorders like pyromania

Treatment may involve cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps patients understand and manage their urges while addressing underlying issues contributing to their behavior.

Seeking treatment for this disorder is typically important because of the way an individual’s symptoms have the potential to harm others. The symptoms of impulse disorders like pyromania can be difficult to manage without professional help, which is why some form of psychotherapy is typically a recommended treatment for individuals with this condition. A focus of therapy will often be learning to identify and redirect the urge to start a fire into something safe and productive. It might also involve more specialized methods such as covert sensitization. Learning about the stressors that may trigger this impulse and how to manage them can be a part of this process. Instilling problem-solving skills can also be instrumental in helping an individual manage their impulses and effectively redirect them when they do occur.

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Connecting with a therapist

Confiding in someone about impulses you feel you have no control over can seem intimidating. However, it’s the job of a trained therapist to provide clients with a safe, nonjudgmental space where they can be honest about their feelings and get unbiased, caring support and guidance. Some people find that connecting with a therapist virtually can help them feel more at ease, making it more comfortable for them to open up. Online therapy is often a more available option as well for those who may have trouble locating a provider in their area or are unable to travel to and from appointments. 

Research suggests that online therapy can constitute an effective treatment delivery modality, which means that you can typically choose between that option and in-person sessions based on what feels right for you. If you’re interested in connecting with a provider virtually, you might consider an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. After a sign-up process, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing. 

Takeaway

Pyromania is a rare but serious mental health disorder that has the potential to result in legal, social, emotional, mental, and socioeconomic consequences for the individual and those around them if left untreated. Treatment from a mental health professional is often required in order to manage an impulse disorder of this nature.
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