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From Thoughts to Actions: How the Unconscious Mind Drives Behavior

Psychology and theories in social work and serve to give industry professionals a framework for what their clients may be experiencing.

Mental illness and other cognitive impairments can affect a person’s ability to live well due to the consequences of both physical sensation and behavior. For example, depression can cause a range of issues that make it difficult to care for oneself properly. As a result, it can be difficult to engage in tasks that demand a lot of physical investment or effort, such as showering, eating, or even just getting out of bed.

It can be difficult for those with a healthy mind to understand exactly what it is that people with mental illness have difficulty with, after all a shower is a necessary thing, and it’s not that hard right? It’s easy to forget that the brain controls everything about the body. Everything that a person does is only accomplished through the brain, from the deepest sleep to the most demanding physical exertion. 

When the brain isn’t functioning properly, rest can be impossible, simple tasks can demand excess energy, and complicated tasks can utterly wipe a person out. Perhaps most insidious of all, is when our unconscious mind, the biases, associations, fears, and beliefs we have with little to no actual effort, affects the way we act. In an unwell mind, the unconscious can be a terrifying beast, and you may not even know why.

From Thoughts to Actions: How the Unconscious Mind Drives Behavior

Consciousness and Unconsciousness

It’s something of an irony that the father of psychoanalysis was probably in desperate need of psychoanalysis himself. Sigmund Freud was the first person to make the link between the unconscious mind and a person’s behavioral patterns, and although Freud himself was a bit of a… questionable personality, his theories on the unconscious have proven invaluable to our modern understanding of the mind.

Freud’s theory was that the mind operated in three distinct modes:

The first level of awareness we have is the “Conscious Mind.” This is the state of mind we’ll be most familiar with as it’s generally what we’re using all the time to do everything.

Consciousness is an interesting study, as it encapsulates all of what it means to be human and yet varies entirely from person to person. The conscious mind, however, can simply be thought of as the experience of being you. How your brain interprets daily sensory input against your mental and emotional experiences.

The “Preconscious Mind” falls somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness. Freud stipulated that the preconscious consists of what we are not consciously aware of, but can bring to the conscious on command as necessary.

For example, a memory would be considered preconscious, as it’s not always on your mind, but you can summon it when you need to recall that particular bit of information.

The final is the “Unconscious Mind,” and what we’re here to discuss today. The unconscious is a deeply internalized reservoir of information that our brain draws from to fuel the reactions of the conscious.

For example, if in your infancy you were terrified by a dog barking at you. Now as you grow up, it’s unlikely that you will have the memory of the dog barking, but for the rest of your life you may become deeply unsettled when in the presence of a dog, or have a panic attack should you hear a dog barking or a loud noise. This is because the incident of the dog barking and the reaction of fear was stored in your unconscious mind, and your brain has learned to interpret similar sensory input as potentially threatening and initiate the fight/flight/freeze response.

From Thoughts to Actions: How the Unconscious Mind Drives Behavior

How the Unconscious Mind Drives Behavior

From the previous example, it’s possible to see how the unconscious mind commands much of our behavior. The unconscious is where the brain stores our instincts, and our selfish reflexes. When we make a decision that furthers our self-preservation, that decision is usually guided by an understanding of what is beneficial to us that is stored deeply in the unconscious.

However, the unconscious also carries with it the biases, judgements, and associations that we carry with us through our lives, and overcoming these programmed auto-thoughts can be exceedingly difficult.

If you’re standing in line at the bank, how do you react to the people around you? If someone is wearing a shirt with a band whose logo you don’t like on it, what effect does that have on your mental state? Or if someone smells like the scent your partner wears, how does that make you feel? What if you think you see an old bully from your last school or job? All of these feelings are fueled through what is stored in the unconscious, and will often influence our behavior in certain ways, if not completely determine what decisions we make.

This can be particularly challenging for people with mental illness, as the ability to apply reason against the automatic instincts of the unconscious is impeded.

People with anxiety disorders, for example, may find that their fight/flight/freeze response is triggered by a stimulus that may be normally considered unthreatening, such as a fan or the presence of a large body of water. In this case, the unconscious instinct is wired to something that, to a mind without said disorder, is harmless. Depending on severity this can greatly affect the life of the person suffering from the disorder, and turn the world into an outrightly hostile environment. 

The important thing to remember, however, if struggling with an unconscious mind that doesn’t seem to want to behave itself, is that the preconscious and conscious are effective tools against the pre-programmed biases of the unconscious.

Through therapy, medication, and ongoing treatment, people can overwrite their instinctual understanding of the world, and learn to exert more control over their automatic reactions. Therefore it is important as a society to remember that people struggling with mental disorders aren’t scary or strange, they’re simply operating with a mind that is used to a different version of the world.