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Updated on May 13, 2022

Dissociative Fugue (Fugue State)

What is Dissociative Fugue?

Dissociative fugue is a form of amnesia. It’s caused by extreme psychological trauma. 

This type of dissociative amnesia is severe and rare. Someone with the condition won’t remember their past or much about themselves.

People with dissociative fugue lose autobiographical memories. These are memories about themselves, other people, and events in their lives.

Dissociative fugue is a means of escaping an extremely stressful or dangerous situation that coping can’t solve.

Symptoms of Dissociative Fugue

Sometimes dissociative fugue only lasts a few hours. To other people, the person experiencing the condition may seem confused and forgetful. Afterward, they’ll return to normal behaviors and functioning.

In cases of short-duration dissociative fugue, other people might not notice it at all. Dissociative fugue can also last weeks, months, or longer.

Someone with dissociative fugue lasting longer than a few hours may experience:1

  • Confusion
  • Sudden lack of attendance at work or school
  • Avoidance of other places they frequent 
  • Loss of autobiographical memories 
  • Detachment from emotions 
  • Severe stress at work or in relationships
  • Confusion about identity
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Other mental health issues
  • Inability to recognize loved ones
  • Wandering around or going places they usually don’t visit

In many cases, someone with dissociative fugue will abruptly walk away from their current life and begin a new one. Their new life may be very different from the one they’ve left.

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Complications and Related Conditions

There are various complications linked to dissociative fugue. These range from mild to severe and include:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Self-harm attempts, including cutting
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Relationship and work issues
  • Sleep disorders
  • Illegal drug use
  • Alcoholism
  • Seizures not due to epilepsy 

Some people with dissociative fugue may go missing or may be found wandering in unfamiliar areas.

Causes of Dissociative Fugue

Dissociative fugue can result from an extremely and emotionally stressful event or situation. It occurs as a result of the person escaping from the stress they can’t cope with. A common cause of the condition is severe sexual trauma.

Other causes include:

  • Extreme feelings of shame or embarrassment
  • War trauma
  • Injuries from accidents 
  • Injuries from a natural disaster 
  • Kidnapping
  • Torture
  • Long-term emotional or physical abuse in childhood

These traumas may have happened to the person, or they may have witnessed it happening to someone else.

Genetics may predispose someone to dissociative fugue.

When to See a Doctor

The sooner a doctor diagnoses dissociative fugue, the better. This is because it can cause a range of complications if left untreated.

Contact a medical professional if you or a loved one has experienced or witnessed severe or long-term trauma. Look out for signs of odd behavior, like missing work or avoiding certain places after severe trauma or stress.

Working with a medical professional early on will help avoid worsening symptoms or lengthening dissociative fugue.

Some people with dissociative disorders have traumatic flashbacks that are overwhelming or linked with unsafe behavior. In such cases, emergency help might be necessary.1 

Treatment Options

The first step in treating dissociative fugue is ruling out any medical conditions that cause memory loss. 

There isn’t a particular test that can diagnose dissociative fugue. However, a doctor can perform various other tests to rule out any possible illnesses or injuries that may contribute to memory loss.

Once they have ruled out all other medical or physical conditions, they will refer the person to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional. The professional will diagnose dissociative fugue following clinical interviews and assessments.

These interviews may include a Structured Clinical Interview for Dissociation or SCID-D. Once they make a diagnosis, treatment can start.

Treatment may include:

  • Creating a safe environment in the present moment
  • Recovering lost memories and talking about them
  • Reconnecting to life before the trauma
  • Gradually discovering and managing the trauma that caused dissociative fugue
  • Developing coping mechanisms to better handle future stressful situations
  • Regaining normal life functions
  • Strengthening and improving relationships

Several types of treatments can help a person achieve these goals.

Treatments may include:

No known medication can specifically help dissociative behavior. Healthcare providers may prescribe medication(s) to treat other symptoms like depression or anxiety, which in turn, might help dissociation.

Outlook

The outlook for dissociative fugue is typically good. It improves the sooner treatment and intervention begin.

Most people with the condition will regain most or all of their memories. They may return quickly, all at once, or gradually over a longer period.

Some people, however, cannot completely recover their memories.

Summary

  • Dissociative fugue is a type of amnesia that develops from extreme psychological trauma, such as sexual assault or being in an accident
  • The condition can last anywhere from a few hours to weeks, months, or longer 
  • Some symptoms include confusion and memory loss
  • Common complications include alcoholism and depression
  • Various treatments can help people recover memories they suppressed during dissociative fugue
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Resources

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  1. Dissociative disorders, Mayo Clinic, November 2017
  2. Mamarde, Abhishek et al. “Recurrent dissociative fugue.” Indian journal of psychological medicine vol. 35,4 : 400-1
  3. Clouden, Tobechukwu A. “Dissociative Amnesia and Dissociative Fugue in a 20-Year-Old Woman With Schizoaffective Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Cureus vol. 12,5 e8289. 26 May. 2020
  4. Igwe, Monday N. “Dissociative fugue symptoms in a 28-year-old male Nigerian medical student: a case report.” Journal of medical case reports vol. 7 143. 31 May. 2013
  5. Raval, Chintan Madhusudan et al. “Dissociative fugue: Recurrent episodes in a young adult.” Industrial psychiatry journal vol. 24,1 : 88-90
  6. Sharma, Pravesh et al. “A Case of Dissociative Amnesia With Dissociative Fugue and Treatment With Psychotherapy.” The primary care companion for CNS disorders vol. 17,3 10.4088/PCC.14l01763. 28 May. 2015

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