Kleptomania is a poorly understood impulse control disorder characterized by the inability to resist urges to steal items that you generally don’t need and typically have little value. This comprehensive guide examines the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatments, and coping strategies for kleptomania.
Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder where individuals experience irresistible compulsions to steal items for reasons not rationally connected to needing or using the objects stolen. Unlike typical shoplifters driven by financial incentives or necessity, those with kleptomania often feel significant distress, anxiety, or guilt after stealing.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the key distinguishing symptoms of kleptomania are:
- Recurrent inability to resist urges to steal objects that are not needed for personal use or monetary value
- Increasing sense of tension immediately before committing the theft
- Pleasure, gratification, or relief at the time of stealing the item
- The stealing is not motivated by anger, vengeance, delusions, or hallucinations
- Clinically significant distress, anxiety, guilt, or impairment in functioning results
While ordinary shoplifters exhibit deliberate, planned stealing for profit or practicality, kleptomaniacs experience intrusive impulses to take things they don’t really want or need. Kleptomania often goes undetected and untreated due to shame around the condition and secretive nature of the compulsions. But seeking professional help is crucial, as kleptomania can lead to legal consequences, financial repercussions, and worsening mental health if left unchecked.
Common Signs and Symptoms
Kleptomania manifests in predictable patterns of stealing behavior along with associated emotional and psychological symptoms:
- Frequently shoplifting inexpensive, unneeded items on impulse
- Experiencing an intense urge to steal rising immediately before the act
- Feeling a sense of tension relief, pleasure, or excitement during or directly after the stealing episode
- Typically stealing alone rather than collaborating with others
- Feeling intense guilt, shame, anxiety, and/or depression afterwards
- Spending excessive time fantasizing about getting away with stealing
- Going to great lengths to deny, rationalize, hide, or conceal the shoplifting and stolen goods
- Difficulty stopping the behavior despite efforts to resist the urge and awareness of potential legal or financial consequences
- Kleptomania leads to significant stress, impaired functioning, legal problems, and financial repercussions
Kleptomania is characterized by a repetitive cycle of stealing, brief pleasure during the act, and longer-term dysfunction or distress after the incident. The condition tends to worsen over time without proper diagnosis and treatment.
Underlying Causes and Risk Factors
The exact causes of kleptomania are not fully understood, though research has uncovered contributions from multiple factors:
- Imbalances in brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine likely play a role, as kleptomania involves dysfunctional reward pathways
- Brain imaging studies reveal abnormalities in regions regulating impulse control in kleptomaniacs
- Neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and brain injuries increase kleptomania risk
- Family history of kleptomania or related impulse control disorders increases risk
- Twin studies reveal potential heritable traits like addictive tendencies
- High stress or past trauma
- Exposure to stealing or shoplifting behavior by family members or peers during childhood
- External psychosocial stressors like financial insecurity, unemployment, or divorce
- Lack of nurturing, discipline, or emotional support during childhood
- Poor coping mechanisms for managing negative emotions
Co-occurring Mental Health Issues
- Depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders often accompany kleptomania
- Other impulse control disorders like compulsive sexual behavior frequently co-occur
- Addictions to alcohol, opioids, or stimulants are common
Pinpointing relevant risk factors can allow proactive steps to minimize individual vulnerability to developing kleptomania.
Getting an Accurate Diagnosis
Since kleptomania shares many surface similarities with ordinary shoplifting driven by financial incentives or necessity, getting properly diagnosed requires a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation to rule out alternative explanations:
- Physical exam to check for potential brain abnormalities
- Screening tests for a wide range of co-occurring mental health disorders
- Discussion of the onset, frequency, context, and specific nature of kleptomaniac stealing urges
- Identifying associated emotional and physical states before, during, and after stealing episodes
- Assessing the level of psychological distress, guilt, and functional impairment
- Determining underlying motivations and uses of items after stealing
- Administering psychological assessments and impulse control disorder questionnaires
Differential diagnosis is vital, as the psychiatrist must ensure the stealing compulsions are not better explained by antisocial personality disorder, mania, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other possible conditions. A kleptomania diagnosis cannot be made until such alternate explanations have been definitively ruled out.
Effective Treatment Options for Kleptomania
While challenging to treat due to the compulsive, ego-syntonic nature of the urges, several treatments for kleptomania exist:
- Antidepressants like SSRIs (Prozac, Zoloft, Luvox) are considered first-line to correct neurotransmitter imbalances contributing to urges
- Anti-craving drugs like naltrexone or nalmefene may help reduce compulsive stealing behavior
- Stimulants like Adderall sometimes curb impulsive urges but have abuse liability
- Worst-case scenarios may warrant off-label antipsychotics or mood stabilizers
- Cognitive behavioral therapy assists individuals in modifying thought patterns around stealing urges and resisting triggers
- Exposure therapy helps build resistance through controlled, gradual exposure to triggers in a safe setting
- Support groups provide community, accountability, and motivation
- Family therapy can help loved ones better understand kleptomania and establish healthy boundaries
- Stress management techniques like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and exercise
- Avoiding high-risk situations and environments that commonly trigger stealing compulsions
- Developing personalized distraction strategies and healthy pleasurable outlets
- Joining vocational counseling or debt consolidation programs if financial factors contribute
Multi-modal Treatment Facilities
For severe kleptomania cases resistant to outpatient protocols, structured inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment programs, like those offered by Rogers Behavioral Health, can be beneficial. These facilities allow individuals to temporarily focus full-time on recovery within a contained, monitored environment. The comprehensive programming combines intensive therapy, medication optimization, and thorough training in kleptomania coping skills and strategies.
A combination approach tailored to the individual provides the greatest chance for successfully managing kleptomania long-term.
Helpful Self-Care Strategies and Coping Mechanisms for Kleptomania
In addition to professional kleptomania treatment, individuals can employ self-guided strategies to resist urges and better manage symptoms:
- Imagining potential legal, financial, and personal consequences before giving into a stealing impulse
- Calling a trusted, accountable friend or family member when compulsions arise
- Avoiding high-risk environments like shopping malls, retail stores, and crowded areas
- Carrying only a small, set amount of cash when needing to go out
- Identifying personalized emotional triggers for stealing urges
- Developing a personalized distraction plan for when compulsions strike
- Practicing relaxation techniques like mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, yoga
- Exploring healthy, pleasurable hobbies and activities to lift mood
- Monitoring thought patterns around stealing and correcting cognitive distortions
- Focusing mental energy on positive life goals unrelated to stealing
- Maintaining adherence to prescribed medications and medical care
- Avoiding recreational drugs and heavy alcohol use that may lower inhibitions
- Participating in kleptomania support communities to reduce isolation
With diligence and daily commitment to such coping strategies tailored to individual needs, kleptomania’s detrimental impact can be minimized.
Overcoming Shame and Seeking Help for Kleptomania
Many struggling privately with kleptomania’s powerful stealing urges feel deep shame and isolate themselves to avoid discovery of the problem. But acknowledging the reality of the situation, opening up to trusted loved ones, and seeking professional care is the only path forward to overcoming kleptomania.
You can conquer shame and secrecy by:
- Accepting kleptomania is an involuntary medical disorder, not a personal failing
- Confiding in non-judgmental, compassionate friends or relatives
- Researching experienced therapists and psychiatrists specializing in impulse control disorders
- Considering joining a kleptomania support group, online or in-person
- Educating yourself and loved ones on the neurological nature of kleptomania
- Focusing on successes in resisting urges rather than failures
- Practicing self-compassion, patience, and honesty throughout the recovery process
- Maintaining hope that consistent treatment and support will provide relief
There are many people who can relate firsthand to your struggles and offer valuable support. You possess the power to regain control of your life.
Look Out for Loved Ones who are into Kleptomania
If you suspect a friend or family member may be living with undiagnosed kleptomania, you can provide enormous help by:
- Expressing concern and support in a loving, non-shaming way
- Encouraging them to seek medical evaluation and care without ultimatums
- Educating yourself about kleptomania to better understand their experience
- Abstaining from accusatory, judgmental, or enabling behavior
- Assisting with access to counseling and psychiatric treatment options
- Helping identify personalized triggers and develop healthier coping strategies
- Being patient but firm if needed in establishing healthy boundaries
Being a source of comfort, community, and accountability during their recovery process
With compassion, discretion, and education, family and friends can make a profound difference in a kleptomaniac’s journey to control their symptoms.
Hope for Overcoming Kleptomania
While kleptomania is extremely challenging, those struggling are not helpless despite feeling powerless in the moment of an urge. This complex, frequently hidden condition has proven treatable through professional care, lifestyle changes, community support, and committed self-care. Regaining functioning and freedom from kleptomania is absolutely possible. No one needs to suffer alone or in silence with this difficult but misunderstood impulse control disorder. Help, hope, and understanding are available.
Kleptomania is a little-known impulse control disorder characterized by distressing, uncontrollable urges to steal items one does not truly need or want. Humiliating secrecy often surrounds kleptomania due to poor public understanding. However, increasing medical research provides hope by pointing to biological and genetic factors, highlighting effective therapies, and removing stigma surrounding a misunderstood condition. With accurate diagnosis, compassionate treatment, self-care strategies, and social support, those battling kleptomania’s relentless compulsions can reclaim autonomy over their lives.