Whether you’re trying to get pregnant, or trying to not get pregnant, the issue of baby-growing often feels overly fraught with extreme ups and downs.
Phantom pregnancy is yet another of the complicated elements of reproduction that make one realize how very un-black-and-white the whole process is.
You may have heard phantom pregnancy referred to by various terms – false pregnancy, fake pregnancy, or, its scientific name, pseudocyesis. But while the terms may sound familiar, this chapter seems too often left out of the book about the Birds and the Bees.
So let’s start with a definition:
Phantom pregnancy means showing the symptoms of pregnancy – except the most definitive one: the existence of a growing human gestating inside of you. It is understood as an interaction between the reproductive system and the brain, where a bunch of mixed up signals start to produce hormonal reactions that make a not-pregnant person feel symptoms of pregnancy.
Essentially, somehow your mind fools your body into thinking you are pregnant when you’re not. The reality is:
- If pregnancy is something you want in your life, a phantom pregnancy is distressing.
- If pregnancy is not something you want in your life, a phantom pregnancy is distressing.
So, before we go any further to look at the symptoms and causes of a false pregnancy, let’s stop for an all-important breather: it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling. It’s okay to reach out to your loved ones for help. It’s okay (and recommended) to seek medical advice.
Phantom pregnancy symptoms
The symptoms of a phantom pregnancy are vast and may include:
1. A bulging belly. Yup, this one can be pretty discombobulating. Your tummy starts to expand and look like all things pregnant – but what’s happening inside does not match with what it looks like on the outside.
2. Unexpected weight gain.
3. Skipped (or irregular) periods.
4. Something that feels like morning sickness.
5. Breasts feeling on the tender side.
6. A feeling that a fetus is moving inside you. Of course, this can be particularly distressing and really puts the phantom into phantom pregnancy.
The duration of these symptoms varies from person to person. They can last for a few days or weeks, or go on to imitate the entire 9 month duration of a pregnancy. For some women, they can last for as long as a few years.
If phantom pregnancy is anything, it is complicated.
It is important to note that a false pregnancy is not the same as a delusion of pregnancy, which may occur in women struggling with severe psychosis.
Next question: what causes phantom pregnancy and how frequently does it occur? While the research into false pregnancy is relatively young, understanding more about it can help those who are impacted by it better deal with this complex experience.
What causes a phantom pregnancy?
Firstly, there is no definitive answer to what causes phantom pregnancy. The source of it seems as varied as the people that experience it. However, certain commonalities give us some insight.
Some of the underlying causes may include:
- Trauma. Many of the causes of phantom pregnancy appear to be linked to psychological trauma around motherhood:
- Wanting or not wanting a baby: Whether this is related to an intense desire to become pregnant or not to become pregnant, the disjunct between the want and the reality seems to send confusing messages to the endocrine system. Phantom pregnancies are also more common in cultural environments where a lot of pressure is put onto women to conceive.
- Struggling with infertility or miscarriage: When the whole pregnancy thing starts to become soaked in soreness, phantom pregnancy may result as your body’s way of responding to intense feelings around this particular aspect of your life.
- Losing a child: The pain of this is no doubt unfathomable and a phantom pregnancy could be the body’s way of responding.
- Recovering after an operation: Some women have experienced phantom pregnancies when Healing from surgery on their reproductive organs.
- Hormone imbalance: Experiencing hormonal fluctuations due to bodily changes such as perimenopause can possibly result in false pregnancy.
- Certain medical conditions: Pelvic and abdominal tumours, as well as bloating caused by a wide number of medical conditions, could be at the heart of a phantom pregnancy.
How common is a phantom pregnancy?
While there’s no doubt it exists, phantom pregnancy is incredibly rare. It’s said to affect only about 6 in 22 000 pregnant women in the US. But while it is rare, it shouldn’t be discounted, as it can be a real source of suffering for the person going through it.
The interesting thing is that men can actually experience symptoms of a phantom pregnancy too. This is referred to as Couvade syndrome, or a sympathetic pregnancy, and typically manifests – both physically and psychologically – in fathers of the babies of expectant mothers.
These symptoms can range from weight gain to aches and pains, to nausea and disrupted sleep patterns – and may even occur after the baby has been born. Interestingly, some fathers may empathetically experience postpartum depression.
Wow. Nature is really something.
How do you get rid of a phantom pregnancy?
What can you do if this feels like where you’re at? Well, the first thing is to seek professional advice from a healthcare practitioner. They’ll be able to recommend the best course of treatment that might range from ultrasounds to hormone regulation to talk therapy.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. This is difficult. Seriously difficult. And it’s okay to be feeling some pretty huge feelings right now.
But, with the right help, you can get through this.
💡 More from The 411:
What Is a Cryptic Pregnancy?