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Kleptomania: addiction to stealing

Reading time: 11 mins

Kleptomania is the recurrent failure to control a consistent impulse to steal unneeded items. It is a rare yet serious mental health disorder that can cause serious repercussions on one’s life if left untreated. 

The symptoms of kleptomania include a repeated inability to resist the constant desire to steal, increased tension or excitement before stealing, a sense of relief during or after the act of stealing, and feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse after the theft, but will later give in to the return of the urges. 

If not treated, kleptomania can lead to serious problems in various areas of a person’s life. The effects of kleptomania include strained family relations, impaired work productivity, extreme feelings of guilt and shame that follows the theft, as well as legal ramifications due to incarceration after the crime of stealing. 

 The characteristics of kleptomania include stealing spontaneously without help from others, acting on strong urges to steal in public places, stealing items with no value to the person struggling from the condition,  and committing the act of stealing not because of revenge but to relieve the tension felt leading up to theft. 

The treatment for kleptomania mainly involves cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a form of psychotherapy. Additionally, medications can be used for treatment in some cases where mental health conditions and other related disorders occur alongside kleptomania.

What is Kleptomania?

Kleptomania is characterized by a recurring urge to steal that the person with the condition cannot resist.  Most of the time, the person could easily afford the item if they had chosen to pay, and the stolen products are frequently of little to no worth, according to a 2017 article on stealing from Healthline. 

Things that were stolen also usually go unused and may be thrown out or given to family members or friends. At times, a kleptomaniac may also secretly return the object from where they took it. Over time, kleptomania behaviors may re-emerge with varying intensities, leading to a continuous cycle of stealing.

What are the causes of kleptomania?

The causes of kleptomania include chemical imbalances in the brain, major stress, and comorbid mental health disorders. The problem is possibly linked to a naturally occurring brain chemical known as serotonin, which plays an important role in regulating mood, emotions, digestion, and sleep. 

An imbalance in serotonin levels is associated with impulsive behaviors and may affect how the brain responds to compulsions.  A 2003 study on perceived stress in kleptomania published in Psychiatric Quarterly adds that people with kleptomania had higher levels of reported stress than people with MDD (major depressive disorder), and as the kleptomania symptoms are addressed, the perceived stress reduces.. Extremely stressful situations can cause poor impulse control and kleptomania is classified as an impulse control disorder. 

Kleptomania also often co-occurs with other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and alcohol abuse. This suggests a potential link between these conditions and an increased risk of developing kleptomania.

What are the effects of Kleptomania?

 The effects of kleptomania may be evident in different areas of a person’s life. The effects of kleptomania are listed below. 

  • Extreme feelings of guilt and shame: Kleptomaniacs are aware that stealing is wrong, but due to their condition, are unable to resist the urge to commit the act. As a result, they experience intense feelings of guilt and shame after stealing. Individuals with kleptomania also often feel anxious due to fear of possible apprehension.
  • Impaired work productivity: Urges to steal during working hours may distract a kleptomaniac from completing projects and can result in poor work performance.  In a case vignette featured on a 2007 study about the compulsive aspects of impulse-control disorders published in the Psychiatric Clinics of North America, the case of a 32 year-old woman named Anna was described. Anna said that she spends three to four hours a day thinking about and feeling compelled to shoplift. Even though she hasn’t finished her duties for the day, she still leaves work early to go shoplift.
  • Strained family relations: People with kleptomania often lie about their impulsive behavior even to close family members. This pattern of stealing and lying in adults often leads to strained relationships with loved ones.
  • Legal ramifications due to stealing: Stealing is an illegal act that may be committed by a kleptomaniac to satisfy their urges. This puts an individual with the condition at risk for legal consequences, as they can be arrested or incarcerated for committing the crime.

Suicide attempts related to feelings of shame: High rates of suicide attempts have been observed in kleptomaniacs. Suicide attempts can be due to feelings of shame over stealing or because of legal or personal problems due to shoplifting. 

What are the characteristics of kleptomania?

 The characteristics of kleptomania include some of its features that sets it apart from shoplifting. The characteristics of kleptomania are listed below. 

  • Stealing spontaneously without help from others: In kleptomania, episodes of theft occur spontaneously or without premeditation. People who suffer from the condition also tend to steal alone, without any assistance from another person. These are different from what is seen in criminal theft, where stealing is planned and may involve collaboration with other people.
  • Stealing items with little to no personal or monetary value: Stolen items often have little value to the person suffering from stealing addiction. They also tend to pick items they do not need and are easily affordable if they decide to pay.
  • Acting on strong urges to steal in public places:  The majority of individuals with kleptomania compulsively steal from a public setting, such as boutiques, stores, and malls or even at a party, according to an article on kleptomania published in Mayo Clinic. Their inability to control this urge even in public places is due to their powerlessness over the disorder.
  • Committing the act of stealing to relieve feelings of tension: Kleptomaniacs often feel a buildup of tension when urges to steal are resisted. To relieve themselves of these strong feelings, they act on their impulses and feel immediate relief after stealing. In other words, people with kleptomania do not steal for their material gain or out of revenge, but simply because they cannot resist the drive to steal. 
  • Items stolen are rarely used and often stashed away: Because people who suffer from obsessive stealing usually do not have any use for the stolen items, the objects are never used and often stashed away. In some cases, they may also be thrown away or given to family members or friends.

Other characteristics of kleptomania include:

  1. A sense of pleasure and relief during and following theft 
  2. Feelings of guilt, remorse, and fear of arrest after stealing
  3. The desire to steal may reemerge with differing intensities over time

What are the signs and symptoms of kleptomania?

 The signs and symptoms of kleptomania may manifest physically, emotionally, socially, or behaviorally. The signs and symptoms of kleptomania are listed below. 

  • An inability to resist the constant desire to steal: In kleptomania, stealing is an outcome of poor impulse control. Urges to steal are so powerful that they cannot help themselves but act on the impulses to relieve negative emotions related to the disorder.
  • Increased tension or excitement before stealing: Someone with kleptomania feels an increasing sense of tension and excitement before the act of stealing. As feelings of tension grow, theft seems to be the only answer to overcome the urges, as stated by a 2021 article titled, “Kleptomania: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments” from Choosing Therapy.
  • A sense of relief during or after committing theft: The sense of relief and pleasure after stealing is often short-lived and quickly turns into a negative emotional state.
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse after the theft: After the initial positive feelings following the act of stealing comes negative emotional responses characterized by feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, and fear about being caught.
  • Return of the impulse to steal: Over time, urges to commit theft may gradually return with varying intensities. If kleptomania is left untreated, this can lead to a vicious cycle of compulsive stealing. 

Other symptoms of kleptomania include:

  1. Behavioral symptoms: Poor work performance, problems at school, lying to loved ones about the disorder, impaired personal relationships, and legal problems
  2. Physical symptoms: Nausea, headache, and dizziness
  3. Cognitive symptoms: Poor impulse control, brain chemical imbalance, and frontotemporal dementia
  4. Psychosocial symptoms: Anxiety, depression, uneasiness, personality disorders, eating disorders, mood swings, stress, and substance abuse disorder

How to overcome kleptomania

 The ways on how to overcome kleptomania can help an individual with the disorder develop healthy coping skills to protect their recovery. The ways to overcome kleptomania are listed below. 

  • Educate yourself about kleptomania: Learn the most important facts and information about kleptomania so that you can recognize its symptoms and be informed about its risk factors, potential triggers, and treatment options.
  • Communicate with friends and family: As with any other disorder, being honest with family and friends about one’s condition helps provide a strong support system during recovery. Educating loved ones about kleptomania and the importance of a supportive environment can also create positive changes.
  • Identify triggers: Certain triggers may give some people the urge to steal, including thoughts, negative emotions, and situations. One should work toward figuring out what triggers them into committing theft, so they can avoid such situations and develop better coping skills when negative feelings arise.
  • Learn stress management techniques: High levels of stress are associated with kleptomania. Stress-relief strategies may help address the symptoms of the disorder, including meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, and other hobbies that the afflicted person may find enjoyable.
  • Engage in healthy hobbies: One of the reasons why people with kleptomania disorder steal is because of the instant gratification that they get from the illegal act. Finding healthier outlets in the form of hobbies can provide an individual with alternatives where they can get the same positive feeling.
  • Prepare for urges: As a person finds out more about the disorder, they may be surprised at what can potentially trigger them into feeling the urge to steal. One can easily get frustrated, especially when only a simple activity can inspire the tension leading up to theft. Taking a family member or a friend with you to shop can help in making you accountable for your actions.
  • Seek professional help: For some people, the best way to get help is through professional treatment. Kleptomania is a serious mental health condition that can be challenging to treat alone. Seeking treatment with the help of medical professionals may positively impact one’s recovery. Treatment options may include medications, psychotherapy, and support groups.

Other helpful ways to overcome kleptomania include:

  1. Make simple lifestyle changes
  2. Stay committed to the prescribed treatment plan
  3. Get treatment for co-occurring psychological disorders
  4. Stay focused on recovery goals 
  5. Rebuild trust and repair damaged relationships

What are the risk factors for kleptomania?

Certain factors can increase the likelihood of someone being addicted to stealing. The risk factors for kleptomania are listed below. 

  • A family history of mental illness: Having a blood relative with kleptomania, substance use disorder, or alcohol abuse may increase a person’s risk of developing the condition.
  • Co-occurring psychological disorders: Having other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is linked to an elevated risk of kleptomania.
  • Being female:  Clinical samples show that about two-thirds of people with kleptomania are women, according to a 2008 study on gender-related differences in individuals seeking treatment for kleptomania published in CNS Spectrums.
  • An imbalance in the brain’s opioid system: The brain’s opioid system controls pleasure, reward, and addictive behaviors. When there is an imbalance in this system of the brain, an individual could find it more difficult to resist the temptation to steal.
  • Sustaining head trauma: A 2001 case report on kleptomania in frontal lobe lesion published in Psychiatrische Praxis described a kleptomaniac with frontal lobe impairment and stated that kleptomania may also be associated with abnormal frontal brain activity.

Other risk factors for kleptomania include:

  1. Experiencing trauma in childhood
  2. Having neglectful or abusive parents
  3. Dysfunctional family relationships
kleptomania risk factors

How do you treat kleptomania?

Kleptomania can be treated by combining evidence-based modalities, including the use of medications, psychotherapy, and active participation in support groups. Although there are no standard medications currently approved by the FDA to treat kleptomania, certain medications may be considered in addressing mental health conditions that often occur alongside the disorder.

For instance, antidepressant medications, particularly a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), may be prescribed to restore the balance of brain chemicals. Additionally, an addiction medication called naltrexone may be used to help curb intense urges to steal, according to an article about kleptomania published in Mayo Clinic.  

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy, is another treatment option that helps address the damaging thoughts and behaviors that cause someone to steal. CBT techniques that are particularly helpful in the treatment of kleptomania are systematic desensitization and covert sensitization. In systematic desensitization, the patient learns to control the urge to steal by achieving a relaxed state through practicing relaxation and coping techniques. 

On the other hand, covert sensitization relies on visualization techniques to make the patient envision a future situation wherein they are punished for stealing. The high levels of anxiety and stress associated with the imagined situation may help the person realize the potential repercussions of their actions, making them avoid the behavior. 

Individuals with kleptomania can also benefit from actively participating in support groups. After all, finding people who share the same struggles and success stories can be a major source of social support, which is important in recovery.

How is Kleptomania diagnosed?

Kleptomania is diagnosed by carrying out both a physical and psychological assessment. The physical assessment provides information about any potential physical causes that serve as triggers of the condition. 

Meanwhile, a psychological assessment can be used to obtain any history of childhood trauma, poor parent-child relationships, family dysfunction, and other traumatic life events that may have led to the development of the symptoms of kleptomania. 

To achieve a diagnosis, the physician or mental health professional may ask questions about the patient’s impulses and compulsions, including when and how often these symptoms occur. A series of tests or questionnaires may also be filled out by the patient in the process. An interrogation regarding what causes kleptomania episodes to happen is also possible and involves asking about possible trigger situations. 

Making a diagnosis of kleptomania can involve a combination of diagnostic rating scales, medical history, and legal records as well.

What is the prevalence of kleptomania?

The prevalence of kleptomania is estimated to be around 6 in 1,000 people among the U.S. general population. This recent estimate accounts for about 0.6% of the population or 1.2 million American adults. 

However, it is difficult to determine exactly how many people suffer from compulsive stealing, as the shame and secrets involved in the condition mean that it often goes unreported. 

A 2011 study on kleptomania and potential exacerbating factors published in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience also states that most of the time, kleptomaniacs only get help when they get in trouble with the law because of their impulsive behavior. Kleptomania appears to be more common in women than in men, with the former outnumbering males at a rate of three to one. 

What kinds of things do people with kleptomania take?

People with kleptomania are compelled to take inexpensive and unneeded items, which stems from various psychological reasons for stealing instead of personal or financial gain. 

Those afflicted often experience an irresistible desire to steal that manifests as a buildup of tension and anxiety that only the act of theft can relieve. Since these urges occur spontaneously, they end up stealing objects they do not need and they could easily pay for. As a result, stolen items end up being stashed away without being used or may even be given to family and friends.

Does kleptomania occur more often in men or women?

Kleptomania occurs more often in women than in men, with approximately two-thirds of patients seeking treatment for the condition being female. And although kleptomania generally has its onset in adolescence, evidence suggests that women in their late 30s living with mental health conditions are more likely to develop an addiction to stealing, according to an article titled, “What Causes Kleptomania?” from MedicineNet.

How does kleptomania develop in a person?

Kleptomania develops in a person due to a combination of causes and individual factors, including chemical imbalances in the brain, psychiatric comorbidities, a family history of kleptomania, and sustaining head trauma. 

Low levels of a brain chemical called serotonin have been associated with the emergence of symptoms of kleptomania. Psychiatric comorbidity with mood swings, substance use, eating, and anxiety disorders are also common among people who suffer from the condition. 
Another contributing factor in the development of obsessive stealing is having a blood relative who has the disorder. Kleptomania is also likely to be a consequence of head trauma or a traumatic brain injury and may exacerbate pre-existing kleptomania in some patients, according to 2004 case reports by Aizer et al., published in Clinical Neuropharmacology.  

kleptomania causes and individual factors

Is kleptomania a crime?

No, kleptomania is not a crime, but it is a legitimate compulsive mental disorder that is linked to illegal behaviors, such as theft. Theft also forms a part of the condition’s diagnostic criteria. 

That said, although kleptomania is a diagnosable condition recognized by medical experts, it would be an unsuccessful legal defense at trial, as evident in the criminal court cases featured in a 2017 article commentary on behavioral addictions and criminal responsibility published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

This is because kleptomaniacs are generally aware of their actions, hence the feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse experienced after committing theft. And even though it is not an excuse for committing the crime, what sets it apart from shoplifting is that kleptomania is a serious psychiatric disorder that has very real, disabling consequences if left untreated