It’s 4am. You’re wide awake. You’re nauseous, your legs are restless, you feel like you have to pee. As much as you hate the symptoms, you love knowing what they mean – that life is growing inside you.
Except for one minor issue. You’re not pregnant.
What you could be experiencing is a phantom pregnancy: a false pregnancy where you think you’re pregnant, but you’re actually not. The clinical term for it is pseudocyesis, and, although it is incredibly rare, for women who experience it, it feels incredibly real.
A phantom pregnancy occurs when a woman believes she is pregnant. She may have a number of the classic pregnancy symptoms but there is no baby growing, no positive pregnancy test, no heartbeat.
Symptoms of a phantom pregnancy
One of the reasons having a phantom pregnancy is so confusing is because women may get the physical signs of pregnancy – a lack of period, breast tenderness, nausea, vomiting, weight gain, food cravings, even a sensation of kicks from within.
In some instances, women may even have elevated levels of oestrogen or prolactin.
There is also a psychological element to it. Most women who experience a phantom pregnancy really want to be pregnant. They feel they are pregnant and they may bond with the baby that doesn’t exist.
Why is this happening to women?
Mind-Body Feedback Loop: In other words, the mind is tricking the body into thinking it’s pregnant. This often occurs when women have a strong desire to fall pregnant, the mind actually tricks the body into thinking it is pregnant.
Physical Condition: Phantom pregnancy may also be caused by a medical condition such as an ovarian, pelvic or abdominal tumours which can cause bloating to resemble pregnancy. There are some conditions that can elevate HCG levels too, such as bronchogenic carcinoma, a lung condition.
Other Psychological Factors: Studies have also linked phantom pregnancy to depression, emotional distress, sexual abuse in childhood and loss or grief.
The hardest thing about a phantom pregnancy is coming to terms with the fact that it’s not real. There is no heartbeat, there is no need for ultrasounds and there will be no baby in nine months.
Coming to terms with a false pregnancy
For a mum with pseudocyesis, it can take time and professional help to come to terms with this. It can feel like a pregnancy loss and like with any loss, it can bring intense grief, sadness, depression, and anxiety.
It can take weeks, months, even years and many women will never truly get over it, especially if their dreams of becoming a mum don’t ever come true.
If you (or someone you know) is struggling with a false pregnancy, please keep in mind that you are not alone. Although this is rare, it does happen to around 6 in every 22,000 women. Another thing to point out is that it can happen in men too.
See your GP if you are not coping and check out the following websites: