In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is false pregnancy (pseudocyesis).
False pregnancy, also known as pseudocyesis, is a type of somatoform disorder. This group of disorders, which also includes functional neurological symptom disorder (formerly known as conversion disorder), involves physical symptoms that stem from psychiatric causes. In false pregnancy, a person develops the physical signs and symptoms of pregnancy, and they believe they are pregnant, but doing a Doppler ultrasound there is no fetal heartbeat detected and ultrasound imaging shows no fetus.
It’s a rare condition that has been reported in males as well as females, and in people ranging from age 6 to 79. It occurs throughout the world, but it’s more common in developing countries.
Common factors associated with pseudocyesis include low socioeconomic status, limited education, and a history of fertility difficulties. It is most common in married women, and often the relationships are unstable or abusive. Younger women in cultures that place great emphasis on childbearing and motherhood appear to be the most at risk.
The onset may be triggered by stress or fear around childbearing, which in turn may be prompted by a miscarriage or losing a child.
False pregnancy symptoms
Someone experiencing false pregnancy may stop menstruating, their abdomen may become distended and they may gain weight, they may experience morning sickness, and they may have changes in pigmentation consistent with pregnancy. There may be changes in the cervix consistent with pregnancy, and milk may be secreted from the breasts. A blood hCG test (the blood version of a urine pregnancy test) is usually negative, but there are a number of conditions that may result in a false positive.
Co-occurring and related conditions
Despite some understanding of potential triggers, there is no clear cause of false pregnancy. It’s often associated with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders, and it can also co-occur with other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and anorexia nervosa. It may be related to issues with neurotransmitter signalling, particularly involving dopamine, that affect the release of hormones from the pituitary gland.
Related conditions include factitious pregnancy, i.e. feigning pregnancy for some type of gain, and delusional pregnancy. In delusional pregnancy, the woman is absolutely certain she is pregnant, but there isn’t the cluster of physical indicators of pregnancy as there would be in pseudocyesis.
People experiencing false pregnancy typically don’t present to mental health services, so getting them the proper treatment may be difficult. Psychotherapy, such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, is the primary form of treatment.
Somatoform disorders, in general, fascinate me, but false pregnancy in particular. For the mind to trick the body into acting like it’s pregnant is really quite bizarre.
- Campos, S.J., & Link, D. (2016). Pseudocyesis. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 12(6), 390-394.
- Marzieh, A., & Elyasi,m F. (2017). Biopsychosocial view to pseudocyesis: A narrative review. International Journal of Reproductive BioMedicine, 15(9), 535-542.
- Thippaiah, S.M., et al. (2018). A case of concomitant pseudocyesis and Couvade syndrome variant. Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 48(3), 29-32.
- Wikipedia: False pregnancy
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.