Kleptomania

PSYCHOFOCUS
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
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What is kleptomania?

The definition and causes of kleptomania, as well as the way it is diagnosed and treated, still bear a lot of controversy. However, it is most commonly known as the compulsive inability to resist an impulsive urge to steal an object that offers no personal or financial gain. To the skeptics, kleptomania is everything but a mental disorder or illness; rather, it is an alibi that bails wealthy shoplifters, an attempt to symbolically compensate for an actual or anticipated loss, a substance-related addiction, an obsession, or a vile habit.

 

What is it like to have kleptomania?

Having kleptomania consists of having recurring and intrusive thoughts and feelings, experiencing an escalating sense of pressure, tension, or thrill right before a theft, having an escalating sense of gratification, pleasure, or relief at the time of a theft, and immediately feeling an escalating sense of horror, guilt, or shame right after a theft. It is believed that kleptomaniacs get into such risky situations because they suffer from operant conditioning, behavioral chaining, distorted conditions, or poor coping mechanisms.

 

How far can things go with kleptomania?

Kleptomania causes distress and impaired functioning in all aspects of life. Kleptomaniacs eventually get exhausted from their anxiety, morbidity, and depressive state. When they are not totally debilitated in social and occupational realms, they face the humiliation of repeated arrests or hospitalization, which leads to reckless behavior (binge eating, compulsive buying, alcohol and substance abuse…), anger, guilt, and even suicide. Left untreated, kleptomania aggravates domestic, health, financial, and legal problems.

 

Does taking medications work?

There is no treatment that specifically targets kleptomania. However, the disorder is being treated with psychopharmacological agents such as tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, opioid receptor antagonists, and mood stabilizers. SSRIs are supposed to regulate the patient’s levels of serotonin, dopamine, and/or natural opioids within the brain synapses. The opioid receptor antagonists should curb urge-related symptoms. Combined together, all of these agents help on some level.

 

Does psychotherapeutic intervention work?

Because many of the prescribed medications are not FDA-approved, and because they may worsen depression and/or the emergence of suicidal thoughts, especially at the beginning of treatment and/or at an alteration in the dose, psychological counseling (behavior modification therapy and family therapy) as well as clinical therapy (i.e. cognitive behavioral therapy) are being held in conjunction with the use of medical drugs. CBT consists of several techniques that should help in keeping kleptomaniacs from acting out.

Does it only affect women?

In the early nineteenth century, it was believed that kleptomaniacs were sexually suppressed women affected by hysteria, imbecility, cerebral defect, and/or menopause. Nowadays, it is believed that the disorder affects men as much as women, with onset in adolescence. The fact that it is triggered by specific stimuli (e.g. feelings of loneliness and stress, the ambiance of stores…) has nothing to do with the kleptomaniac’s gender or sex.

 

Is it the same as shoplifting?

Kleptomania is of an unpremeditated and compulsive nature, while shoplifting is of a premeditative and rationalized nature. Whereas the first comes with greater or lesser intensity over the course of time, loss of self-control, and constant stress, the second causes excitement. While kleptomania may be a way to self-adjust a hormonal imbalance and curb anxiety, shoplifting can be a way to set things right, express daily rebellion, and satisfy an intentional need to avenge an injustice and/or conscious feelings of anger.

 

Whether it better fits into the psychoanalytic and psychodynamic approach, behavioral and cognitive approach, or biological approach, kleptomania or theft – be it pathological or not – is never good news. People with kleptomania are presented with an array of treatments amongst which undergoing some of the most aggressive CBT methods, seeking professional psychiatric and/or medical help, having a family member or a close friend as a sponsor, and joining a self-help group can make quite a difference in the kleptomaniac’s life. Sadly, there are many risk factors (e.g. family history, having brain injuries…) and no reliable prevention tools when it comes to kleptomania, mainly because the origin of kleptomania is not clear and because there is a high possibility that patients experience relapses. Life is never easy, but with a bit of education, self-initiative, motivation, and appropriate assistance and support, life can get better. 

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