What is… False Pregnancy

Mental Health @ Home Insights into Psychology - False pregnancy

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 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 is 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.

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 equivalent of a urine pregnancy test, is usually negative, but there are a number of conditions which may result in a false positive.

Despite some understanding of potential triggers, there is no clear cause of false pregnancy.  It is often associated with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders, and can also co-occur with other mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and anorexia nervosa.  It may be related to issues with neurotransmitter signalling networks, 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 treatment strategy used.

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.

 

You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

Sources:

 

Mental Health @ Home Therapy Mini-ebook Collection: ACT Fundamentals, CBT Fundamentals, DBT for Mood Disorders, and PTSD Treatment Options

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25 thoughts on “What is… False Pregnancy

  1. kachaiweb says:

    Truly interesting and an ‘old’ disorder. I believe Freud or even Charcot wrote about this. Women who presented this disorder fell into the category of ‘hysterical women or men’. The word has lost his original meaning and is now (to my knowledge) mostly used as a not so positive term. You describing these very real bodily changes shed a more serious light on the matter. Thank you for this interesting post!

  2. Paula Light says:

    So interesting! What about when a woman is pregnant, stops menstruating, and gains weight… yet supposedly “doesn’t know” she is pregnant? You see these stories in the news from time to time.

  3. BeckiesMentalMess.wordpress.com says:

    After two miscarriages during the time I was married, I was prone to feeling changes in my body all the time. I had gone through a false pregnancy when I was 35. I was convinced that I was pregnant, felt the morning sickness, certain smells had made me feel queezie, I was exhausted, and I felt what a body normally feels when pregnant.
    I did at least 3 pee test, then finally a blood test. After a full examination, It was determined I was perimenopausal. It was also determined that I would never be able to become pregnant.
    To be honest, this is pretty much when my mental health was starting to show to people who knew me best. The depression and anxiety was all too much to handle, but I never sought treatment.
    My mother knew fully that there was mental health issues in my family at this time, yet never said a word about this until I hit rock bottom. My grandmother was mentally ill and back then the stigma was so harsh. But, you would think if I was conveying the same symptoms as my grandmother back then, my mother would have said something then when I was working and had insurance. Nope, I had to find out the “Family Secret” many years later.
    Naturally, no one can change the past but it plays on my mind often. So much could have been prevented if my mother just opened up to me.

    Sorry… Okay, done venting.

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