Pyromania Causes and Treatment

Pyromania: Definition, Causes, & Treatments

Pyromania Causes and Treatment

Pyromaniacs have a fascination and obsession with fire, strong urges to set fires, and feel relief, excitement, or gratification from the act.

1 The act of intentionally starting fires is repeated and is believed to be used as a form of emotional expression for pyromaniacs.

2 More research is needed to find effective treatments, although there is some evidence that a combination of therapy and medication may be effective.2,3

What Is Pyromania?

Pyromania is an uncommon impulse control disorder characterized by a pattern of intentional fire starting. People with this condition feel drawn to fire and have strong urges that are relieved by starting fires. A person can only be diagnosed with this condition when they start fires intentionally but without a clear reason or goal.4

Pyromania is extremely rare. According to expert Dr.

Brian Odlaug from the University of Minnesota, “The true prevalence of pyromania is hard to ascertain for many reasons, including the relative lack of large scale, systematic studies assessing its prevalence and overall failure to diagnose within healthcare or legal settings.

The only national study (in the US) to assess prevalence was conducted in the early 2000s (the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions) and found lifetime fire setting in 1.1% of the 43k+ individuals surveyed.”

Setting a fire to conceal a crime, make a political statement, or for payment would disqualify someone from a diagnosis of pyromania.

Also, people cannot be diagnosed with pyromania if they started a fire when under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or if they were experiencing signs of psychosis at the time.

While most pyromaniacs are diagnosed with another mood, substance, or personality disorder, these conditions cannot fully explain the person’s attraction to fire or their pattern of firesetting.1,2,5

Pyromania is a very specific condition that causes a person to have a strong attraction to fire coupled with strong urges to start them, which are relieved by doing so.

These urges may be driven in part by suppressed anger, shame, or other negative emotions, and starting fires may be a way of expressing or releasing these feelings.

Researchers have found that many pyromaniacs suppress anger and other difficult feelings, and have trouble communicating them in normal or healthy ways.4,5

Pyromania vs. Arson

Arson is the intentional, illegal act of starting a fire that is big enough to destroy property. Most arsonists are not pyromaniacs, as they often have specific motives for starting a fire.

3 In order to be considered a pyromaniac, it must be clear that the reasons for starting the fire aren’t motivated by other reasons.

1,3,4 For example, starting a fire to cover up another crime, seek revenge, or make a political statement would be an act of arson, but not a sign of pyromania.1

Symptoms & Signs of Pyromania

The symptoms of pyromania include a pattern of intentional firestarting which is driven by strong urges and impulses, instead of by another goal or objective. People with this disorder find relief, excitement, or gratification from setting fires, and tend to have an unusual preoccupation with fires.1

Symptoms of Pyromania

According to the DSM 5, the symptoms of pyromania include:1

  • More than one occurrence of setting a fire intentionally/deliberately
  • Tension or arousal (i.e. strong urges or impulses to set a fire) before the act
  • Fascination, interest, or attraction to fires or situations/contexts that are closely related to fires (i.e. lighters, torches, firefighters, etc.)
  • Pleasure, gratification, or relief after starting an intentional fire or when seeing fires
  • Fire setting is not driven by financial, political, or criminal objectives, and is not limited to instances where a person is experiencing psychosis or under the influence of a substance
  • Fire setting cannot be fully or better explained by another mood, conduct, or personality disorder (i.e. Bipolar disorder, Antisocial Personality disorder, etc.)

Additional Signs of Pyromania

In addition to the DSM 5 symptoms for pyromania, researchers have also found specific characteristics, traits, and behavior patterns in people with this disorder, including:1,2,4,5

  • A tendency to be fire “watchers”
  • A tendency to set off fire alarms
  • An affinity for firefighters
  • Liking or collecting fire paraphernalia (i.e. matches, torches, etc.)
  • Low self-esteem or high levels of shame, embarrassment, and secrecy
  • A tendency to suppress emotions
  • Low frustration tolerance and anger issues
  • Poor communication and interpersonal skills
  • Inability to regulate emotions
  • High levels of impulsivity and poor decision making skills

Causes of Pyromania

Pyromania is poorly understood in comparison to other mental illnesses. Additionally, it often goes misdiagnosed or is mistaken for another mental illness. According to research, most people with this condition have a history of childhood trauma, family dysfunction, or have been the victims of abuse, maltreatment, or neglect.3,4

It is believed that starting fires is a way that pyromaniacs express negative emotions, and that they find catharsis in the act of starting a fire and watching it burn. People with pyromania often struggle with impulse control, emotion regulation, and poor decision making and communication skills.3,4

Risk & Protective Factors for Pyromania

All mental health disorders have certain factors that can increase a person’s risk for acquiring them (risk factors), as well as factors that decrease a person’s risk for developing the disorder (protective factors). Some risk and protective factors are linked to a person’s personality, genetics, or psychological make-up, while others are linked to their environment, lived experiences, and choices.

Here are some of the known risk and protective factors for pyromania:2,3,4,5,6

Many people with pyromania also suffer from another mental illness.6 The most common comorbid mental illnesses found in people with pyromania are mood disorders bipolar disorder, personality disorders antisocial personality disorder, or another impulse control disorder.5,6

Some research has also linked pyromania with higher rates of ADHD and poorer decision making, executive functioning, and shorter attention spans.3 Also, people with low IQ’s or intellectual disabilities have a higher lihood of having pyromania.6

Impacts of Pyromania

The impacts of pyromania are often serious and cause extensive problems in a person’s life. Dr. Odlaug mentions, “Pyromania has significant, negative consequences to an individual ranging from legal to financial and health complications.” Firestarting can also cause financial problems, property destruction, as well as increasing the risk for accidental deaths, injuries, and burns.6


Odlaug also notes that people with this condition also report significant mental health impairments when he states, “The urges to plan and set fires are often described as overwhelming and consuming and impact the individual’s capacity to be present – physically and emotionally – at home and in the workplace.” People with active symptoms of pyromania may also struggle with impulse control, regulating their emotions, and maintaining healthy relationships with others.”2,4

Pyromania Treatment

There isn’t a lot of research on what types of treatment is most effective for people with pyromania.

Dr Odlaug notes, “To date, there are no approved or standard-of-care treatments for pyromania and large-scale assessments of treatment approaches are currently lacking.

” The research that is available suggests that some people with pyromania could benefit from one or more of the following treatments.2,3

Therapy for Pyromania

Therapy is a frontline treatment for most mental illnesses, and certain types of therapy can be more effective than other types for specific symptoms and conditions.

The available research on pyromania suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) may help people with this condition.

2,3 CBT is a structured type of therapy that encourages positive changes in thinking and behavior, and also encourages the use of healthy coping skills.

Some researchers also believe that teaching relaxation, emotion regulation skills, and impulse control techniques can help people with pyromania.

2 Other impulsive and compulsive disorders respond well to behavioral therapy, and also to treatments exposure and response prevention (ERP) that focus on helping a person experience their urges without acting on them.

Still, it is unclear whether these treatments would be effective for a person with pyromania.

Medication for Pyromania

Pyromania is sometimes treated with medication, often in combination with CBT or another form of therapy.

While there is not a ‘gold star’ medication for people with this condition, some researchers report improvements in patients who are prescribed one or more of the following medications:2,3

  • Antidepressant medications (i.e. SSRI’s)
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Antipsychotic medications
  • Anti-seizure medications
  • Sedatives (i.e. Benzodiazepines)

Getting Help for Pyromania

In addition to getting therapy and medication prescribed, people with pyromania may also benefit from working on their own to overcome their issues.

Pyromania is a rare but serious disorder, and when left untreated, can lead to severe legal, health, social, and emotional consequences.

People who suspect they have this condition should seek professional help from a therapist, counselor, or psychologist who can perform a diagnostic assessment.

Finding a counselor is now easier than ever, thanks to online directories and the increasing number of therapists offering online sessions. Choosing a therapist who has experience and knowledge about impulse control issues and pyromania is important, and can help to ensure you are properly diagnosed and treated.

According to available research, some of the following steps may be helpful to people who have strong urges to start fires:2

  • Learn more about fires, how they start, and the impacts on human life and property
  • Become more empathetic to people who have been victims of fires or arson by hearing their stories
  • Improve relationships with other people and learn to communicate emotions in a healthy way
  • Address old traumas and emotional problems leftover from past experiences
  • Use healthy outlets for stress, anger, and other negative emotions (i.e. exercise, meditation, talking about your feelings)

Final Thoughts on Pyromania

Pyromania is an uncommon but serious mental illness characterized by an attraction to fires, strong urges to set fires, and a pattern of acting on these urges.1 Only about 1% of the general population has this disorder, and those who do often are diagnosed with another mood, personality, or impulse control disorder.5,6

People with this condition often have unresolved issues related to past traumas and suppressed emotions, and use fire starting as a way to express these emotions.2 Treatments CBT therapy, sometimes combined with medication, may help to reduce the symptoms of this disorder and prevent people from acting on their destructive firesetting urges.2,3


Pyromania Treatment — The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab

Pyromania Causes and Treatment

Pyromania is said to affect less than 1% of the U.S. population. Because it affects such a small number of the population, pyromania treatment methods are still being researched.

Known as a rare disorder, it is characterized by deliberate and persistent firesetting for the purpose of relieving tension and anxiety.

Beyond a fascination with fire, pyromania affects men and women a, though men appear to represent a larger number of fire starters. 

Classified under the disruptive, impulse-control and conduct disorder section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), pyromania is a chronic condition if left untreated. 

Pyromania disorder treatment can lead to a positive prognosis and even the cessation of firesetting can be achieved with targeted treatment. 


Due to its rarity, pyromania treatment can vary among individuals. While there have not been any controlled trials of medication for pyromania, certain medications have been considered and used, especially in comorbid conditions. 

Proposed medications for pyromania can include:

  • Antidepressants: Antidepressants have been used in some cases under the rationale that the underlying cause of pyromania is ly to stem from traumatic events and feelings of depression or isolation. Some people theorize that by treating the emotional trigger for pyromania, a person may not feel the same level of intensity of desire to set fires. Research suggests that on a neurobiological level those with impulse-control disorders have abnormalities in serotonergic transmission pathways that affect impulsive behaviors. 
  • Mood stabilizers: Mood stabilizers, antidepressants, have been utilized due to commonly accepted theories on what causes a person to develop pyromania. Medical professionals who advocate for the use of mood stabilizers for pyromania are focused on the impulse control aspect of the disorder. It has been suggested that if a pyromaniac no longer has significant mood swings, they may be less ly to feel the need to set fires to release emotional pain.
  • Antipsychotics: Some people believe that pyromaniac firesetting occurs as a form of psychotic behaviors. The thought is that antipsychotic medication may prevent a person from losing touch with reality and as a result, prevent firesetting behaviors.
  • Anticonvulsants: Clinical experience shows that antiepileptics can modulate impulsive behaviors such as pyromania. Limited case studies have revealed a response to anti-convulsant medication such as valproic acid and olanzapine with noted improvements. Two reports of children treated for epilepsy with associated pyromania behaviors showed a resolve in both conditions with the use of carbamazepine. 
  • Antiandrogens: Reports on clinical response to anti-androgenic medication shows that neurobiological processes other than just the serotonergic transmission may be affected in pyromania. Medication therapy appears to involve more than one type of medication to address various neurobiological processes and clinicians are making use of antiandrogens in the treatment of impulse control disorders. 
  • Naltrexone: Naltrexone has been used successfully in the treatment of impulse control disorders and showed a significant reduction in urges related to other impulse disorders such as kleptomania, gambling and trichotillomania. Four five studies had positive results and provide strong evidence for the use of naltrexone in other impulse control disorders such as pyromania.

Lifestyle Modifications

With limited research surrounding pyromania treatment efficacy, it is important to address all aspects of an individual’s life to increase the lihood of therapeutic response. Although pyromania is rare, the impact it can have on a person’s life is significant. Lifestyle modifications can help improve the overall outcome of pyromania treatment.

Social Skills Training

In one study that examined the prevalence of intentional fire-setting behavior in the U.S., a clear relationship was seen between firesetting and antisocial behavior. Conduct disorder was notable as well, as triggers such as stress, boredom, interpersonal conflict and feelings of inadequacy. 

In adolescents who are displaying firesetting behavior, as well as adults, it would be of benefit to address such behaviors as they relate to pyromania and the need for positive peer influence. Depending on the individual, group therapy can provide a means to practice social skills and develop practical life lessons.

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are employed for a variety of health and mental health conditions and are used to induce a natural state of relaxation including slower breaths, lowered blood pressure and a feeling of well-being. 

Different forms of relaxation techniques can be of benefit for those with impulse control disorders, such as:

  • Deep breathing: the focus is on taking slow, even and deep breaths
  • Biofeedback-assisted relaxation: body functions are measured or monitored to assist in teaching a person how to control or produce changes in the body that lead to relaxation, such as decreased tension in muscles
  • Guided imagery: This practice is the focus on pleasant imagery instead of negative or stressful emotions. It can be done alone with a recording, or led by a health professional.
  • Autogenic training: the focus on physical sensations of the body, including heaviness, warmth and relaxation of different body parts
  • Progressive relaxation: This is a form of progressive muscle relaxation involving the tightening and relaxing of different muscles. It can be combined with breathing exercises and guided imagery, as seen with imaginal desensitization.

It has been noted that while such relaxation techniques are generally safe, some with psychiatric conditions have reported worsening of symptoms or increased anxiety and intrusive thoughts. 

Fire Safety Education

In addition to the fascination with fire, around one-third of patients with pyromania reported traveling to fires when they heard fire engines. One study even observed a link between volunteer firefighting and pyromania. 

In view of this obvious fascination with fire and the potential to start fires and cause harm, it’s essential to educate those with firesetting inclinations.

Fire safety education can make an individual more aware of potential harm and dangerous circumstances to avoid.

This type of education is especially of benefit to young firesetters who lack the life experience to fully understand the potential danger fire holds.

Treating Pyromania and Co-Occurring Disorders

When a diagnosis of pyromania is made, it is often not the only disorder or mental health condition present. Research has found high rates of psychiatric comorbidity association with pyromania, such as:

Therefore, the best pyromania treatment must include a thorough evaluation of the presence of other mental health conditions and include treatment for those individual disorders. A thorough approach will optimize the care given to individuals with pyromania. 

With over 90% of individuals reporting severe distress after starting fires, and one-third having considered suicide as a way to control firesetting behavior, many pyromaniacs want to overcome their firesetting behaviors, and therefore, need and deserve the best mental health support and treatment available. 

If you or someone you know is currently struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction and firesetting behaviors, contact The Recovery Village. One of our representatives can discuss a treatment plan that may be appropriate for you.

  • Sources

    Merrick, Joav; Howell Bowling, Carrie; Omar, Hatim A. “Firesetting in Childhood and Adolescence.” Frontiers in Public Health, October 8, 2013. Accessed June 14, 2019.

    Burton, Paul R.S.; McNiel, Dale E.; Binder, Renee L. “Firesetting, Arson, Pyromania, and the Forensic Mental Health Expert.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, September 2012. Accessed June 14, 2019.

    Roncero, C.; Rodriguez-Urrutia, A.; Grau-Lopez, L.; Casas, M. “Antiepileptic drugs in the control of the impulse disorders.” Actas Esp Psiquiatr, 2009. Accessed June 14, 2019.

    Schreiber, Liana; Odlaug, Brian L.; Grant, Jon E. “Impulse  Control Disorders: Updated Review of Clinical Characteristics and Pharmacological Management.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, February 21, 2011. Accessed June 14, 2019.

    Hodgins, David C.; Peden, Nicole. “Cognitive-behavioral treatment for impulse control disorders.” Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, August 3, 2007. Accessed June 14, 2019.

    The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. “Relaxation Techniques for Health.” November 20, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2019.

    Grant, J.E.; Won, Kim S. “Clinical characteristics and psychiatric comorbidity of pyromania.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, November 2007. Accessed June 14, 2019.

    Lejoyeux, M.; Arbaretaz, M.; McLoughlin, M.; Ades, J. “Impulse control disorders and depression.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, May 2002. Accessed June 14, 2019.


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