Phantom Pregnancy (Pseudocyesis): The Mind-Body Connection
Pregnancy is an exciting time for expectant mothers. It’s a high point in women’s lives and one that will bring great changes. It brings many physical and emotional symptoms. A woman may feel complete and fulfilled when she knows that she will become a mother. But what happens when a woman is not actually pregnant?
I had a case where a woman in her late 40s was referred to me by her obstetrician/gynecologist. During the intake, she reported that her husband of 10 years divorced her a couple of months ago. She stated that they were trying to have kids for many years, but all four of her pregnancies ended in miscarriages. She continued to tell me that her husband had an affair after her most recent pregnancy because he could not deal with the pain of another miscarriage and an already-broken marriage.
After the first session, I asked permission to speak with her doctor, since he referred her to me. A release of information form was signed and I called her doctor after the session. Her doctor reported that although her pregnancies were confirmed in the past and she had four miscarriages, the last tests confirmed that she was not pregnant. He broke the news to her gently, but she insisted that she was pregnant because she was experiencing all the pregnancy symptoms. He believes that she was experiencing pseudocyesis.
Although it is rare, pseudocyesis (“false pregnancy” or “phantom pregnancy”) is a serious emotional and psychological condition. Psychological factors trick the body into believing that it’s pregnant.
According to Lack (2012), “their hormone levels may rise, and their breasts can become engorged, sometimes even releasing colostrum. Some women develop health complications associated with pregnancy, such as preeclampsia. False pregnancy can even result in contractions.” Regardless of medical opinion, the woman will insist that she is pregnant. This condition can be triggered by trauma such as abuse, miscarriages, incest, or infertility.
The doctor will arrange for an abdominal ultrasound, a pelvic exam, blood test and urine sample to determine if a woman is pregnant. In pseudocyesis, the tests will come out negative but the woman will insist that she is pregnant due to a desire and need to become a mother.
There have been documented cases of pseudocyesis. In an article published by Keller (2013), a doctor performed an emergency C-section at a North Carolina hospital on a woman who was not pregnant. Several doctors examined and tried to induce her for several days before they made a decision to perform the C-section. An ultrasound was performed, but no heartbeat was heard. An epidural was given and when they opened her up, they saw that there was no baby.
Another case written by Dr. Alvarez (2013) reported that a woman in Brazil “went to the hospital, because she felt that her pregnancy was at risk.” She looked pregnant but the doctors failed to identify a fetal heart rate. Instead, they performed an emergency C-section only to find out that she was not pregnant.
The treatment requires a supportive network. Medical professionals need to break the news gently to a woman who believes that she is pregnant. It is advised that a woman seek a psychotherapist to help identify the underlying cause of the disorder, address the emotional side of the disorder, and help the woman deal appropriately with the disappointment of no pregnancy. It is important for the professional not to minimize the reality of the physical symptoms and to help patients get body and mind back in touch with reality.
I gently spoke to my client about pseudocyesis and the confirmed medical results. She felt incomplete and unfulfilled because she could not achieve motherhood. She blamed herself and her inability to conceive for her husband’s affair and their divorce. I did not minimize her physical pregnancy symptoms. Instead, we explored her symptoms and connected it to her strong desire to become a mother. The grieving process was implemented to work on her miscarriages and divorce.
She was not aware of the reality of things and became preoccupied with her thoughts and strong desire to become a mother. Her thoughts wandered off toward ideas that she imagined which cued her body to the fantasy of pregnancy symptoms.
It’s important to realize the power and control the brain has over our body. Many things happen in our lives which can interfere with healthy functioning and emotional health. This can lead to depression, anxiety, or stress. Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes can have a negative or positive effect on our body. It is important to understand and recognize your emotions and to sort out the causes of your symptoms in order to manage your emotional health.
Alvarez, M. (2013). Phantom pregnancy: Imagining you’re pregnant when you’re not. Retrieved January 2014, from www.foxnews.com/health/2013/12/17/phantom-pregnancy-imagining-youre-pregnant-when-youre-not.
Keller, K. (2013). False pregnancies baffle doctors, partners. Retrieved January 2014 from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/false-pregnancies-baffle-doctors-partners/story?id=18597468
Lack, E. (2012). Strange but True: False pregnancy. Retrieved January 2014 from http://www.babycenter.com/0_strange-but-true-false-pregnancy_10364942.bc
Nieves, H. (2018). Phantom Pregnancy (Pseudocyesis): The Mind-Body Connection. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 8, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/phantom-pregnancy-pseudocyesis-the-mind-body-connection/