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False or Phantom Pregnancy (Pseudocyesis) - Everything You Need to Know

phantom pregnancy

 

Maybe you’re feeling nauseated. Your breasts are swollen, you feel more tired than usual, and you’re seriously craving ice cream. Your period is a few days late, so you assume that can only mean one thing. 

But the symptoms don’t go away after a week or two. They continue evolving. You start gaining weight. Your mood fluctuates. Your period still doesn’t return, and your morning sickness bites you with a vengeance. 

Is it time to start looking for a little girl dresses boutique or some duds for a newborn baby boy?

By all means, it seems like you’re pregnant. However, some people experience these classic symptoms without actually carrying a baby. In a phantom pregnancy (also known as pseudocyesis), there is no conception, and there is no fetus. That said, the symptoms can be intense and frequent enough to convince someone they’re carrying a child. 

Who Experiences Phantom Pregnancy?

In general, pseudocyesis, especially in countries where pregnancy tests and quality healthcare are easily accessible. With that in mind, it’s challenging to obtain accurate statistics about phantom pregnancies. Some people recognize the condition early on- others drop out of their prenatal care plan. 

Interestingly, phantom pregnancies, or also referred to as false pregnancies, are not just restricted to women during their childbearing years. People of all ages- including men- can experience a phantom pregnancy. Approximately a third of women who experience false pregnancy have been pregnant at least one time in the past. More than half of these women are married. Often, when men experience a phantom pregnancy, his partner is also pregnant. This sympathetic pregnancy is medically known as couvade. 

What Causes a Phantom or False Pregnancy?

Experts agree that there isn’t a single factor for pseudocyesis. Instead, it appears that several factors can cause this phenomenon. Some women present with just one of these factors; others may have several of them. 

The Longing To Be Pregnant

When a woman desires to become pregnant, she may feel overly attuned to her body and hormonal changes. If she is tracking her ovulation, she might notice every minute change. While anticipating pregnancy, she pays attention to every cramp or craving. The presence of a symptom might lead her to believe she’s pregnant. 

Unfortunately, the desire to become pregnant doesn’t always translate to a pregnancy. Research shows that anywhere between 1 in 8 couples experiences infertility. For many people, infertility represents an emotionally and physically exhausting battle.

Some couples undergo various fertility treatments. While these methods can be successful, they cannot promise the desired outcomes. As a result, many couples must undergo extensive lengths to have a baby- knowing they don’t have any real guarantee.

Some experts postulate that the intense desire coupled with heightened thinking and planning for pregnancy can result in phantom pregnancies. 

The Fear Of Pregnancy

Just like some women desire to be pregnant, many people fear pregnancy or want to avoid it altogether. At times, this aversion can create extreme emotional distress. The individual may start honing in on every shift and change within their body.

This pattern can result in somatic pregnancy symptoms, which leads them to believe they are pregnant. Essentially, the person unknowingly psychs themselves out. Until they take a test, they may feel they are pregnant. Even after taking the test, they might doubt the results and continue to retest. 

Trauma 

Research also suggests that phantom pregnancies may stem from trauma. At times, the trauma may be pregnancy or child-related (i.e., a miscarriage, recent pregnancy scare, giving birth to a stillborn child). However, the trauma does not necessarily have to be related to these causes. 

Sometimes, to cope with trauma, the brain unconsciously creates narratives in the form of dissociation. Dissociation keeps the brain in survival mode. It is a disconnection from reality, and it helps people escape the true nature of their lives. In extreme cases, dissociation can cut off all emotional sensations. 

Physical Conditions 

Physical conditions can mimic pregnancy symptoms. For instance, ovarian tumors or chemical brain imbalances, and even premenstrual syndrome (PMS) have similar symptoms as pregnancy. The cluster of these symptoms can trick the brain into believing it's pregnant. 

Mental Illness

People living with mental illness like severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia may experience psychotic symptoms. Psychotic symptoms include both hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinations are sensory experiences like hearing, feeling, and seeing things that aren’t present. Delusions refer to having rigid beliefs that are contradicted by reality.

In some cases, the mental illness may be undetected. A phantom pregnancy can sometimes be the first sign of such concerns. 

What Are The Symptoms Associated With Phantom Pregnancies?

Phantom pregnancy, or False pregnancy, can closely mimic traditional pregnancy. Common symptoms include:

  • Missed menstrual cycles
  • Distended abdomen (resembling a baby bump)
  • Weight gain
  • Changes in hair, skin, and nails
  • Swollen or engorged breasts (that may be producing colostrum or milk)
  • Pregnancy aches and pains 
  • Increased urination
  • Morning sickness
  • Intensified, specific cravings
  • Mood swings (increased irritability, sadness)
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling sensations related to fetal movement, contractions, or labor

These symptoms might last for a few weeks, but they can extend into nine months or even longer. For these reasons, people experiencing phantom pregnancies are completely convinced they are expecting. Often, others have no reason to doubt them, either. 

What Is The Treatment?

Phantom pregnancies can feel confusing, embarrassing, and downright devastating, especially with something like geriatric pregnancies or late pregnancies. Many times, the individual has already created a complex narrative about their unborn baby. Some have already shared the news with friends and family.

A doctor will verify the pregnancy with a pelvic exam, urinalysis, and ultrasound. After determining the false pregnancy, they will typically conduct an assessment to screen for underlying psychological issues. They may refer you to a therapist or psychiatrist for emotional support during this vulnerable time. 

Unfortunately, some people refuse to believe the evidence. They may check into another clinic or consult with a different OBGYN. Some stop receiving medical care, but still insist they are pregnant. This phenomenon can be frustrating and upsetting to loved ones. 

Psychotherapy is one of the best ways of treating phantom pregnancies. Psychotherapy offers people a space for non-judgmental and compassionate support. It helps promote trauma healing, and it can provide action-based coping skills for managing distress and uncertainty.

Nicole Arzt, LMFT, author

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage & family therapist with nearly a decade of experience treating issues related to anxiety and mood disorders, parenting and family dynamics, complex trauma, and substance use disorders. A professional content writer, she has authored hundreds of scholarly articles for mental health professionals, treatment facilities, and nonprofit organizations. Nicole is a regular contributor for Pregnancy Health, MamaMend, Today, Romper, and Fatherly.

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