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Pyrophobia – an intense and irrational fear of fire – is considered to be a specific phobia. Though no statistics exist in the UK specifically for pyrophobia we do know that specific phobias are prevalent. According to a Harvard study, 12.5% of adults will experience some sort of specific phobia at some point in their lives.
Pyrophobia seems to be less common, or it’s not so talked about compared to other specific phobias like agoraphobia (a fear of being unable to escape from a place), claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) and acrophobia (a fear of heights). According to one YouGov Poll, almost 58% of UK adults have a fear of heights and for one-quarter of people, this is extreme.
Though adults are generally aware that their phobia is irrational, they cannot help their reactions to their feared situation or object. In this article, we’ll discuss all there is to know about pyrophobia and, importantly, how to get help if you or someone you know is suffering from this condition.
What is pyrophobia?
Simply put, pyrophobia is a fear of fire. This fear is so intense that it affects how a person acts and lives in their daily lives. People who suffer from pyrophobia might feel panic or intense anxiety when they see fire or even when they think about it or talk about it. Being afraid of fire is natural to some extent. Obviously, fire can be dangerous and so we’re naturally fearful of it. Pyrophobia, however, takes this fear to an extreme level.
A specific phobia like pyrophobia is a type of anxiety disorder. A person with pyrophobia might be scared around any form of fire, including a log burner, open fire, bonfire, or even a candle flame. They might even be anxious just thinking about fire or talking about it. If there are events where fire might be present – like fireworks or even a theatre performance that includes pyrotechnics – this could cause anxiousness. Even when the person knows that the fire isn’t really dangerous or threatening, they still can’t help feeling fearful.
If the person’s pyrophobia is specific to wildfires, this is called agripyrophobia.
The prefix pyro comes from the Greek ‘pyr’ meaning fire. This prefix appears in many terms relating to fires, including pyromania (an impulse to start fires) and pyrotechnics (fireworks).
How common is pyrophobia?
The prevalence of pyrophobia specifically is unknown but since 12.5% of adults have a specific phobia at some point or other, there are likely to be hundreds of people suffering from this anxiety disorder.
Who is at risk of pyrophobia?
Up to a certain degree, fearing fire is normal. Fire is dangerous and harmful and so the brain will instinctively try to protect you from it. You know not to touch a flame and to run from a burning building, for example. However, this is the usual ‘flight or fight’ response. Pyrophobia, however, is more intense. It can prevent a person’s ability to get on with normal life and might interfere with work, school or socialising.
How to deal with pyrophobia
The first step to dealing with a phobia is to realise that you have one. Knowing the difference between an irrational fear and a natural aversion to something is crucial. If it’s all-consuming and affecting daily life, it’s likely to be problematic for you.
There are many ways to deal with pyrophobia, but the first step is to speak to a GP. They will be able to point you in the right direction to getting help. This might mean that you’re referred to a specialist like a psychiatrist or a psychologist or for talking therapy.
What triggers pyrophobia?
There are lots of potential triggers of pyrophobia. If you have the condition, you might be triggered by seeing fire in any form. It could be something as big as a bonfire or something as small as a candle flame. Even talk of fire can bring out panic among pyrophobes. Fires on a TV programme or watching the news and seeing a story of a house fire can be a trigger too.
What are the symptoms of pyrophobia?
Those with pyrophobia might try to avoid situations where there is potential fire. This might mean they won’t go into restaurants, pubs or homes where there is an open fire or log burner.
They might obsess over checking things like ovens are turned off and may plan escape routes, search for fire extinguishers and sprinklers and assess for fire risks whenever they’re in public. If people are afraid of wildfires, they might choose to avoid travelling to hot and dry climates and forests.
In the home, someone suffering from pyrophobia might refuse to have any gas appliances in their home. They might also unplug appliances whenever they’re not in the room to avoid potential electrical fires.
Pyrophobes might also be affected by physical and psychological symptoms caused by their heightened anxiety.
Psychological symptoms include:
- Being unable to control feelings about fire even though you know them to be unreasonable and irrational.
- Avoiding situations where you might come across fire.
- Not being able to function day-to-day due to the fear.
People who have pyrophobia might have physical symptoms due to their body’s response to their ‘flight or fight’ response.
Physical symptoms include:
- Racing heart rate.
- Heart palpitations.
- Rapid breathing or shortness of breath (dyspnoea).
- Chest tightness.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Sweating excessively (hyperhidrosis).
- Dry mouth.
- Needing the toilet.
- Indigestion (dyspepsia).
- Feeling faint, lightheaded or dizzy.
In children experiencing pyrophobia, you might also see:
- Refusal to leave a parent.
- Not wanting to go near fire or talk about fire.
Pyrophobia in children can occur after talks on fire safety or when discussing house fires and how to get out of a burning building. It’s important, therefore, that teaching these important safety measures is done carefully in order not to induce fear.
What causes pyrophobia?
There are lots of different specific phobias like pyrophobia, but researchers don’t know much about what causes them.
It is suspected to be a combination of factors, some of which might be:
Having a negative experience with fire
A sufferer of pyrophobia might have experienced something negative to do with fire. It could be a burn, being in a burning building, losing something or someone in a fire, accidentally starting a fire, or witnessing a fire at a home or in the community.
Learned behaviour, genetics, or both
Studies have shown that children whose parents have an anxiety disorder are more likely to have one themselves compared to children with parents without them. Though the incidence is evident, it isn’t clear whether or not this is down to learned behaviour, genetics or a combination of both. If a parent has pyrophobia, their children might come to fear fire naturally due to their parent’s behaviours around fire.
Everyone perceives and processes things differently, including fears. Some people are naturally more anxious by their nature, which might make them more susceptible to developing a specific phobia like pyrophobia. You are more likely to have pyrophobia if you have other phobias.
How is pyrophobia diagnosed?
A doctor might diagnose someone with a specific phobia like pyrophobia if they:
- Have anxiety or symptoms of panic when fire is seen or mentioned.
- Have the fear for longer than six months.
- Go out of their way to avoid risks of fire and fire in general.
- Have difficulties in their day-to-day life at work, home or socially due to the phobia.
Like any phobia, it can be challenging to diagnose pyrophobia specifically because different phobias often overlap. Someone who has pyrophobia might also experience claustrophobia or agoraphobia. As such, they might receive a diagnosis of a specific phobic disorder or anxiety disorder.
Those who experience this condition often have other mental health conditions like:
- Illness anxiety disorder (hypochondriasis).
- Paranoid personality disorder.
- Panic disorder.
- Avoidant personality disorder.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
The first way to getting a diagnosis is a discussion about the problem and the symptoms. It will also involve finding out more about your medical history, including your psychiatric history.
A specialist might use a diagnostic manual like the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) or the World Health Organization’s ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision) to see where the symptoms best fit in terms of a diagnosis.
How is pyrophobia treated?
Though no specific treatment is available for pyrophobia, there are lots of different ways of helping the problem. Many people manage to overcome their fear with a combination of treatments.
Here are some of them:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
This therapy teaches patients to change the way they think. For pyrophobia, it might teach them to alter their thoughts and perceptions about fire by learning some statistics about fire, helping them understand how and why fires start and how to extinguish them safely.
A CBT therapist can also teach patients different techniques to calm their symptoms when they are triggered. This might include meditation or deep breathing.
Exposure therapy is a form of psychotherapy that slowly exposes the patient to their phobia. It is also used to help treat panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
This therapy was specifically designed for people suffering from a specific phobia, whether that’s a situation, activity or object. Though people with a phobia might think that avoiding the thing they’re scared of is better for them, in the long run, avoidance can make their fear worse.
In this case, they would slowly be exposed to fire in a controlled and safe way. The idea is that they are able to decrease their anxiety around the object or situation slowly and with control.
There are different versions of exposure therapy and a psychologist will work with a patient to decide which is the best way forward for them individually.
Exposure therapy can involve:
- In vivo exposure: This is when the person directly faces their fear. For instance, someone who is afraid of spiders might be shown a spider, or a person with a fear of heights might be encouraged to go up a tall building.
- Imaginal exposure: This involves imagining the situation or feared item in your mind. With pyrophobia, this might involve someone visualising fire.
- VR (virtual reality) exposure: With the advancements in technology, many therapists are using VR in exposure therapy. Someone with pyrophobia might be able to wear a VR headset and be in a room with a fire, for example.
There are also different ways to work through exposure therapy.
- Flooding: This means beginning exposure therapy by trying to do the most feared activity. This is not particularly helpful with pyrophobia, however.
- Graded exposure: The therapist will work with the patient to create a hierarchy of fear of situations involving fire that the patient can work through slowly from mildly difficult to most difficult.
- Desensitisation: For some people, the exposure to the fear can also be combined with exercises in relaxation and meditation to help patients find their feelings about the feared item more manageable.
Exposure therapy helps patients in different ways and is more successful with some people than others (and with some phobias than others). For some people, the end result is that they find their reactions to their feared situation decrease. This is called habituation. Others might find that their learned behaviours that caused the fear are weakened and so their association with fire isn’t one of huge anxiety.
Exposure therapy might also show patients that they are capable of managing and controlling their fear, even if it is still present. This means that it’s not all-consuming. Finally, patients are able to learn how to process the emotions that are attached to their phobia and, as such, can become more comfortable with how they process fear.
Medication hasn’t proven to be very effective for treating pyrophobia or any specific phobic disorder. However, with frequent panic and anxiety that affects a person’s ability to function day-to-day, your GP might be able to prescribe an anti-anxiety medication.
Medication might include:
- Benzodiazepines – These are sedatives that help you relax. They’re usually only prescribed in the short term because they’re addictive.
- Antidepressants – Some drugs used to treat depression are also useful for treating anxiety. This is because they alter how the brain uses up chemicals, affecting moods.
- Beta-blockers – Whilst also being medicine that treats high blood pressure, beta-blockers ease symptoms associated with anxiety like shaking, racing heart rate and palpitations.
There is no way to prevent pyrophobia completely, but a sufferer can try to alleviate the negative effects their fear has on their life.
Things that are known to help the severity include:
- Avoiding alcohol, drugs and caffeine as these are known to make anxiety worse.
- Communicating with healthcare providers and therapists openly.
- Talking with family and friends about the phobia.
Final thoughts on pyrophobia
Pyrophobia is a specific phobia that is characterised as a fear of fire. A person who has pyrophobia might feel an extreme yet irrational level of anxiety about fire. For some, this might cause them to be avoidant of situations where there might be a fire, including restaurants with candles or open fires or birthday parties with candles.
The majority of people who suffer from a specific phobia like pyrophobia can improve their fear if they access appropriate treatment. If pyrophobia affects daily living, it’s important to seek help by visiting a GP in the first instance.
Pyrophobia, like other specific phobias, can be treated effectively with therapy like CBT or exposure therapy, and medication can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and panic too.