Kleptomania: Causes, Risk Factors & Treatment Options


The overwhelming compulsion to take things that belong to other people is a unique phenomenon. But what triggers it, and can it be managed and controlled?

An Overview of Kleptomania

Kleptomania, while rare, is still a legitimate condition that affects many persons from all walks of life. In fact, as much as six out of every 1000 people may suffer from kleptomania. According to estimates, kleptomania is responsible for about 100,000 theft arrests annually and $500 million in national retail losses on average. Interestingly enough, women seem to be disproportionately more affected by kleptomania than men.

Along with numerous other impulse control disorders, including pyromania (lighting fires) and trichotillomania, it is included in the Diagnostic Standard Manual (DSM) (compulsive hair pulling). This reference book is the standard used by psychiatrists and other mental health specialists to identify mental diseases.

Kleptomaniacs frequently experience severe shame and regret after committing a theft, in contrast to regular thieves. They steal because of their increasing uneasiness, which can only be relieved by the act of stealing. They temporarily feel better since they are no longer stealing and getting away with it, but when they reflect on their crime, they feel incredibly awful. Guilt and the dread of being caught raise anxiety levels once more, which prompts people to resume shoplifting or other types of theft.

The Differences Between Kleptomania and Typical Stealing or Shoplifting

There are a few significant distinctions between kleptomania and shoplifting. Shoplifters and kleptomaniacs both commit crimes when they steal things, but their motivations are different.

  • The Intention: Shoplifters enter a store with the intention of stealing something. Instead of doing it for the thrill, they are doing it to get something they couldn’t previously afford. Shoplifting is a common coping mechanism for kleptomaniacs, who frequently steal stuff they don’t need or want. They care more about the act of stealing than they do about the item they take.
  • The Compulsion: Shoplifters are not required to continue stealing at all times. They are in charge of what they do. Kleptomaniacs behave compulsively. Once they start, compulsions are challenging to resist and can quickly dominate one’s cognitive processes.
  • The Guilt: Shoplifters may or may not experience regret for their theft. Some people shoplift frequently as a means of making money to support a drug habit or resell goods. After acting, kleptomaniacs experience severe guilt and regret.

What Causes Kleptomania?

Although the specific causes of kleptomania are largely unknown, we have a good understanding because the condition is quite similar to other obsessive disorders. That link has led medical professionals to presume they have related causes.

  • Low Dopamine Levels: The brain chemical known as “dopamine” is released following enjoyable activities. It’s also released in large amounts after using some drugs, and it’s what frequently feeds urges for addictive behaviors and substances. The brain’s dopamine levels rise after engaging in enjoyable behavior and then drop. It is believed that compulsions increase dopamine release, which results in a “high” experience for the obsessive individual after engaging in the compulsion. After the initial release, the brain starts to seek more dopamine.
  • Improperly Balanced Opioid System: The opioid system in the brain regulates the brain’s reward center, the perception of pain, and addictive behaviors. Since compulsive disorder sufferers seek unsuitable incentives or bigger rewards despite hazards and get hooked to the benefits despite feeling guilty and sorrow, experts believe that this signals some sort of imbalance in their brains.
  • Low Seratonin Levels: Experts in mental and behavioral health today believe that issues with the neurotransmitter serotonin are to blame for obsessive-compulsive disorders. Chemicals called neurotransmitters are used by the brain to communicate between nerves. Serotonin aids in controlling emotions and actions. People who have persistently low serotonin levels are more likely to act impulsively and have compulsive thoughts and behaviors.
  • Brain Changes, Injury, or Trauma: It is possible that conditions such as kleptomania can result from damage to the frontal and orbital lobes of the brain. One of the causes of kleptomania may also be other brain damage, such as alterations in the axons and dendrites.

The Risk Factors of Kleptomania

Many kleptomaniacs are aware of their difficulty in controlling the need to steal. Who, though, develops kleptomania? What are the risk factors? The following is a list of some of the more common ones. Because the condition is not yet fully understood, it is important to know that this list certainly does not include all potential risk factors.

  • Brain Trauma: Brain traumas or severe head trauma might cause some persons to develop kleptomania. Accidents or illnesses can result in head trauma.
  • Family history: Kleptomania might be inherited or influenced by one’s environment. According to research, your likelihood of developing kleptomania is increased if you have close relatives who do. The likelihood of getting kleptomania is also significantly increased by having a family history of drinking, drug abuse, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Mental Illness: Numerous kleptomaniacs also suffer simultaneously from other mental diseases. Other Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and substance abuse problems are frequently seen in kleptomaniacs. It’s probable that the same factor or factors caused the various illnesses.
  • Gender: Women make up more than two-thirds of those with kleptomania. Women are disproportionately affected compared to men.

Living with a Kleptomaniac

Kleptomania is an illness that can remain hidden for extensive periods of time. It can be challenging for friends or relatives to inform someone they have the illness. Every time you go shopping, you can find that your loved one is carrying stuff they didn’t pay for. Your loved one might keep these things hidden at home. You might come across collections of stolen goods, mainly insignificant objects that don’t make sense.

The most typical scenario most people and families encounter is when your loved one is arrested for shoplifting, and you receive an anxious, tearful phone call from the neighborhood jail. You initially assume it’s just a simple misunderstanding. After several calls or arrests, you come to the conclusion that there is a larger issue at work that cannot be resolved with tears, begging, or community service.

It’s critical to express your worries and concerns if you believe a loved one is suffering from kleptomania. It’s also crucial to realize that your loved one can’t control their kleptomania. No amount of screaming, begging, or threatening will persuade the person to alter their behavior. But your loved one can get kleptomania treatment, and recovery IS possible.

Getting Help For Kleptomania

You must first recognize that you or a loved one needs help if you want to overcome kleptomania. When you acknowledge an issue, you can then face reality and take action to solve it.
The person who is best qualified to identify kleptomania is a psychiatrist. Consult your primary care physician or internist for a list of psychiatrists who treat kleptomania patients, or check the directory of providers provided by your insurance provider. A psychiatrist is a medical expert in diagnosing, treating, and prescribing drugs for mental diseases.

A psychiatrist will record both the medical history and symptoms during the initial consultation. Any prescription or over-the-counter medications, as well as any vitamins or supplements that are being used, must be disclosed to the doctor to give them the best chance of a proper and valid diagnosis and treatment thereafter.

A psychiatrist will consider at least some of the following traits, if not all of them, in order to make an official diagnosis of kleptomania:

  • Prior to stealing, you feel more tense and anxious; these feelings are soon relieved and replaced by pleasant feelings.
  • You frequently feel the impulse to steal things. Because it’s difficult to control your urges, you frequently steal things that are useless.
  • You don’t steal out of a desire to avenge someone or out of a necessity for survival. Your thefts don’t specifically target any one person or business.
  • After stealing the object, you have later feelings of joy, relief, or satisfaction.
    Additionally, if curious, you may read more about the typical kleptomania symptoms and indicators here. Getting a kleptomania diagnosis might be embarrassing. But having an illness or disease is not shameful. Obsessive-compulsive disorders like kleptomania are illnesses like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. There is no shame in the fact that your brain doesn’t work the same way as most other peoples’ do. Your conduct could possibly be brought on by another brain injury.

Kleptomania Treatment

When you seek treatment for kleptomania, your doctor could suggest a number of different kleptomania treatment choices. Medication is the most widely used kind of treatment.

Prescription drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) alter how the brain uses the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin and other chemicals usually circulate in the brain, where they are absorbed and used by certain neurons. The balance of serotonin that is accessible to the neurons is altered by SSRIs. SSRIs assist in maintaining higher levels of serotonin in the brain, which elevates mood and enhances impulse control. After taking SSRIs for a while, a lot of people claim that their impulse control has improved and that their compulsions have subsided.

An opioid antagonist is a second drug that a doctor might advise. Opioid antagonists have the ability to suppress positive emotions, which interferes with the risk-reward cycle of theft and the joyful feelings that follow.

For kleptomaniacs and those with compulsive disorders, individual counseling and group therapy may also be beneficial in addition to medication. Desensitization therapy is employed by some doctors. Patients engage in relaxation exercises during systematic desensitization therapy while imagining the temptation to steal. During this activity, they employ unique tactics to suppress the urge to steal.

Psychiatrists may also employ covert sensitization as a component of kleptomaniacs’ treatment. In this practice, you pretend to steal before imagining all the unpleasant outcomes of getting found. The theory is that the fear of being discovered in certain circumstances will prevent you from stealing again.

Finally, some physicians decide on aversion therapy. The temptation to steal is accompanied by negative stimuli. Aversion therapy includes the antiquated practice of fastening a rubber band on your wrist each time you feel the urge to smoke. By associating a negative stimulus with the temptation to steal, kleptomaniacs may employ this approach or one similar to it in order to decide not to steal in the future.

Get Help for Kleptomania Today

Admitting you have kleptomania or addiction to stealing may be embarrassing. Your doctor, a psychiatrist, or a mental health facility like a rehab or recovery center can all provide you with assistance. The anguish of your thieving addiction is understood by these facilities, which frequently treat patients with numerous addictions. They can aid in your recovery and future preparedness. You can finally be liberated from the guilt and shame of kleptomania with the right treatment. At Addiction Experts, our team of professionals is standing by to help you get on the pathway to a life free from the burden of Kleptomania. Our compassionate and experienced staff are equipped with the information and tools to help get you started. Reach out to us today, don’t delay!

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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