What Is Dissociative Fugue?

Woman with cell phone appears to be lost.

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Dissociative fugue, formerly called fugue state or psychogenic fugue, is a subtype of dissociative amnesia. It involves loss of memory for personal autobiographical information combined with unexpected and sudden travel and sometimes setting up a new identity.

What Is Dissociative Fugue?

The word "fugue" comes from the Latin word for "flight," which reflects the nature of dissociative fugue in that involves an element of traveling or wondering away from one's present situation.

Dissociative fugue is a form of reversible amnesia that involves personality, memories, and personal identity. This type of temporary amnesia may last hours, days, weeks, months, or longer. It involves wandering or unplanned travel, in which the person may establish a new identity in a new location very different from their old life.

While dissociative fugue used to be diagnosed as a separate disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), in the new updated DSM-5 it is a subtype of dissociative amnesia instead. In general, the dissociative disorders involve impairment of identity, perception, consciousness, and memory.

Symptoms of Dissociative Fugue

What are the symptoms of dissociative fugue? They potentially include all of the following depending on the case:

During the Fugue State

If you're in the midst of a fugue state, you may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Confusion about your identity
  • Appearing to be unsure about your past
  • Feeling confronted if challenged about your identity

However, it's important to note that a person in the middle of dissociative fugue may not show any outward signs that suggest they are experiencing mental illness. That is because, from the perspective of the person, the new identity is their actual identity. It is only when this becomes challenged that issues may present themselves.

After the Fugue State Ends

Once a dissociative fugue state has passed, you may experience symptoms like:

  • Feelings of depression
  • Periods of grief
  • Feelings of shame
  • Discomfort or anger
  • Feelings of distress about being in an unfamiliar place
  • Feeling as though you have lost time

It should also be noted that a person can experience multiple instances of dissociative fugue, particularly if the underlying cause of the fugue is never addressed.

Diagnosis of Dissociative Fugue

How is dissociative fugue diagnosed?

Diagnosis In the DSM-IV

When it was originally included as a separate disorder in the DSM-IV, the following criteria needed to be met for diagnosis:

  • Sudden or unexpected travel away from one's home or work
  • The inability to remember your past experiences
  • Confusion about your identity and taking on a new one
  • Significant distress and impairment about these issues

However, it's important to know that dissociative fugue is typically only diagnosed retrospectively since a person in the middle of it may not show any outward signs and it might be hard for others to recognize. So, it is only when the fugue ends, either abruptly or gradually, that a diagnosis is usually made.

Diagnosis In the DSM-5

Since the release of the DSM-5, dissociative fugue is now a subtype of dissociative amnesia (a disorder) and refers to symptoms of dissociative amnesia accompanied by the state of purposeful travel or bewildered wandering.

All of the other subtypes are listed below: Different types of amnesia that might be present in this condition include:

  • Localized amnesia
  • Selective amnesia
  • Generalized amnesia
  • Continuous amnesia
  • Systematized amnesia

Diagnostic Exclusions

Dissociative fugue will not be diagnosed if the fugue state is directly related to any of the following conditions or situations:

Furthermore, in very rare cases, people may feign dissociative fugue for legal or other reasons.

Methods of Diagnosis

An assessment for dissociative fugue would generally start with a medical and neurological examination. If indicated, a neuroimaging study such as an MRI of the brain or additional testes such as an electroencephalogram (EEG) to rule out things like epilepsy would be performed. Once physical causes were ruled out, a psychiatrist or psychologist would administer a series of assessment tools and conduct an interview to assess whether the symptoms were best accounted for by a diagnosis of fugue.

Prevalence

Dissociative fugue is rare with some estimates being around 0.2 percent of the population. It is more common in adults than in children, and also more common in people already diagnosed with other dissociative disorders.

Causes of Dissociative Fugue

What are the causes of dissociative fugue? Below is a list of some potential related causes. Generally, these situations involve a history of significant or repeated trauma:

  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Experience of violence (e.g., rape, torture)
  • Combat violence
  • Suicide attempt
  • Automobile accident
  • Natural disasters
  • Committing a homicide

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

While you may appear fine after the initial trauma, reminders of an earlier trauma could cause trigger dissociative fugue. For example, seeing your abuser later in life or experiencing an event that reminds you of the earlier event (e.g., seeing a small fire after being involved in a tragic fire).

In addition, there is evidence that there may be a genetic link as family members of person's with dissociative disorders are more likely to experience dissociation.

Treatment of Dissociative Fugue

The duration of the forgotten events can vary. Some episodes resolve rapidly, while others can persist for years. There may be multiple episodes.

The goal of treatment is therefore twofold:

  1. To help recover your identity and develop coping strategies to prevent the same thing from happening again.
  2. To help you come to terms and cope with the original trauma that triggered the episode.

Treatment

There are a number of different types of treatment that can be employed with a person who has experienced dissociative fugue;

  • Psychotherapy to gain insight into thinking patterns
  • Medication for related depression and anxiety
  • Family therapy to ensure you receive support
  • Art therapy to explore feelings in a safe way
  • Clinical hypnosis
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to treat flashbacks, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to help with managing potentially overwhelming feelings
  • Meditation and/or relaxation techniques to manage symptoms and monitor your internal state.

Unfortunately, without treatment of the underlying issue, dissociative fugue may happen multiple times.

Prevention

The best prevention involves treating the underlying problem and/or removing the threat that caused the episode.

Coping With Dissociative Fugue

Coping with dissociative fugue can be challenging since most people with the condition do not know that they have it. However, if you've experienced it in the past, there are things you can do to prevent recurrence:

  • Receive therapy to cope with symptoms related to the fugue
  • Deal with the underlying issue that caused the fugue through therapy
  • Obtain the support of family members to help you notice when you are at risk of fugue
  • Try to reduce or eliminate potential triggers of a dissociative fugue
  • Practice meditation or other techniques to help manage your internal states
  • Find a creative outlet, such as painting or drawing, for your emotions
  • If you are prescribed medication for anxiety or depression by your doctor, be sure to take your medication regularly

Helping Someone With Dissociative Fugue

How can you help someone who has been diagnosed with dissociative fugue? Below are some suggestions.

  • Attend therapy to learn about their issues and how you can offer support.
  • Recognize potential triggers and be sensitive to those and how they might influence the person experiencing dissociative fugue.
  • Make sure that the person is receiving adequate care and taking all prescribed medications as directed by the psychiatrist.

What to Do If Someone Seems Confused

There can be many reasons a person might seem confused about their surroundings or identity, and as dissociative fugue is relatively rare, it is not likely to be first on the list. If you have concern for someone's well-being, mental state, or safety, it is best to notify their physician or bring them to an emergency room.

A Word From Verywell

More research is needed to identify how best to handle this complex and relatively rare psychiatric issue. If you or someone you know has lived with dissociative fugue, know that you are not alone and others have experienced the same thing. If you have not already, ensure you are receiving proper treatment to prevent the same thing from happening again.

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