The physical means of defending oneself are not the only components in ensuring one’s safety. Though it may sound counterintuitive, the ultimate goal of learning self defense is to not have to use it.

The sad and frightening truth is that no one is or can be absolutely guaranteed safe from a potential attack or dangerous situation. There are, however, certain steps that can be taken to help lessen the risks by a great deal. The actions of another may be out of one’s hands, so to speak, but it’s the actions leading up to the actions that are the most important. The following are five crucial elements of self defense that one should know – and learn to practice and know well – above all else.


#1 – Always Be Present.

A person should be completely aware of their surroundings and what is going on around them at all times – and not just when alone.

Distractions such as cell phones, tablets or laptops, listening to music through headphones at high volumes, and intently concentrated conversations with another person can compromise one’s awareness of their environment. An assailant will almost always select an “easy target” based on what their potential victim is doing – not strictly whether that person is alone (two people who are blissfully distracted don’t necessarily lessen the odds of an attack just because there are two).

Put away your devices while in public, most especially when walking, riding the train/bus, or waiting at your stop (and especially if you’re alone). Tell the person who is calling you that you’ll call them back when you get to your destination… that hilarious video your best friend posted on social media can wait… you can find out the game’s final score or who was eliminated on The Bachelorlater. Text messages, generally speaking, are a bit less risky – as long as they aren’t borderline novella status. If you listen to music through headphones, stay away from the noise-cancelling type and keep the volume lower, especially in quieter environments (walking down a quiet street, waiting at a bus stop alone, etc) – even better yet, listen with only one ear bud in. When possible, travel in groups of three or more.

Another big factor in reducing the chance of being an “easy target” is attitude. When a lion hunts, it goes after the weakest, smallest, most unsuspecting prey. Don’t be the prey. Confident individuals tend to carry themselves with strong posture, look ahead and make eye contact with people, and walk with purpose.

Most of all: tune in your senses – being completely aware of what you see, hear, smell, and feel can help steer you clear of becoming a potential target. Know your “escape routes” just in case. Listen to your gut. Ever get that feeling that someone is watching you? Pay attention. Shifts in energy like that don’t happen without a reason.

#2 – Avoid the Situation.

With heightened awareness, a person is more likely to see something coming and take action to avoid a potential threat or conflict.

Potential threats should always be taken seriously, no matter how “minor” they might seem. The expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” can indeed go both ways, and while some may dismiss it as stereotypingit is always better to be safe than sorry. First of all, at the risk of sparking a controversial debate, there are stereotypes for a reason. In this particular case, forensic psychologists refer to it as “profiling”; there are certain sets of characteristics that are recognized as commonly and consistently present amongst specific types of criminals. With that being said, I digress. If someone or something seems suspicious in any way – even if it’s just a gut instinct – avoid them/it.

For example? On the usual shortcut home, there’s a questionable looking person that you’ve never seen before just hanging around, seemingly for no reason… Yeah, it may turn out to be the new tenant on the block who’s as harmless as a stuffed kitten, but is taking the shortcut really worth the risk? Turn around and take the long way home. There are two people having a very heated discussion just a few blocks ahead, and there’s a slight possibility words might turn to blows… Don’t chance ending up in the middle of it. Cross the street before continuing past. There’s a person sitting across from you that seems to have been watching your every move since you both got on the train. This continues as you both get off at your stop, and they proceed to follow in the same exact direction you’re headed. Could it just be a coincidence? Have you seen this person on your route before? Make it a point to find a security guard or transit personnel to “ask for directions” whilst you covertly watch and see if the suspicious person continues on or not. Then, ideally, wait near the security station and call someone to come pick you up.

The bottom line: if you are even the slightest bit suspicious of anyone or any situation, make it a point to go out of your way to avoid ending up in danger. Period. It’s not paranoia, it’s common sense and survival instinct. If the road you normally took home was completely engulfed in flames, would you continue on and keep going that way anyhow? Think about it.

#3 – Defuse and De-escalate.

If avoidance isn’t an option and one were to end up in a volatile predicament, the next step is to try and calmly defuse the situation.

The fact of the matter is, some situations just aren’t avoidable. Accidents happen. Wrong place, wrong time happens. So what is the best course of action when things go south and the adrenaline starts to rush with the onset of fear or anger?

Maintaining even a modicum of composure can be easier said than done, but it is the most important thing a person can do when trying to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation. The next thing that has to happen is one letting go of any need to be “right” – chances are, the person who initiated the conflict and/or displayed the aggression feels even more strongly that they are the one who is right, and there is no way they can be convinced otherwise. So whether one is indeed [in the] right or not, it’s usually best just to let the aggressor think they’ve won by conceding and backing down. That sounds painfully hard, I know – it’s human nature to want recognition for being right, especially if one absolutely, inarguably is right. But for the sake of safety, one’s pride should definitely sit things out in these particular situations. It will heal, trust me. Other people’s anger issues and/or ignorance (etc) will not – that’s something they have to live with, and there’s no point in suffering along with them.

A lot of times conflict can arise over trivial or materialistic things. If you were to take the situation and apply it toward your quality of life as a whole, how much would that conflict actually be worth the risk? Is that parking space really that important to your survival? Is the fact that rude person bumped into you and then blamed you for it really going to change how you live out your life? Does that person’s name-calling and opinion of you hold any validity when you and your loved ones know who you really are?

Defending one’s honor is another behavior inherent in human beings – in ancient times a person’s honor was very publicly regarded and might have determined an entire family’s status in society; it used to mean the difference between life or death in some belief systems. (More on the history of honor in the related links at the bottom of the article.) In modern times, a person’s honor is more privately regarded and is almost directly related to ego. While sometimes one’s ego may feel hurt and damaged beyond repair, it – just like pride, which stems from the ego – will heal.

Bottom line? That parking space or rude/ignorant person shouldn’t mean the difference between life or death – and by backing down and walking away, you throw out that coin toss altogether.

#4 – Arm Yourself.

In the event that attempts to calmly resolve conflict is unsuccessful (or inapplicable), a person in fear for their life should have the ability to arm themselves or otherwise be able to think on their feet.

For the sake of avoiding any misunderstandings and/or political debates, I would like to preface this section by stating that I am in no way suggesting a person carry an illegal weapon of any sort (and I highly suggest that one researches the laws governing their area of residence). For this article’s intents and purposes, I am strictly referring to everyday items that could be used to aid in defending oneself should a person fear for their life. [Please see the disclaimer.]

Believe it or not, there are many items that people already carry on a daily basis that could be utilized if having to fend for their life – virtually anything a person is carrying or can find nearby can be easily wielded: a purse, a set of keys, a water bottle or thermos, a shoe (this is especially true for ladies wearing heels or stilettos), a rock, etc. There are no real limits – this falls hand in hand with being aware of one’s surroundings, by the way. I will add as a reminder, however, that the ultimate goal in defending oneself is to debilitate the assailant in order to get away, and not to seriously maim or kill. Keep that in mind.

Personally, I carry pepper spray on my keyring. Even though I am a highly trained martial artist, I would rather utilize the pepper spray first and foremost if possible. This reduces my risk of injury or the possibility of putting myself in the way of further danger.

#5 – Fight Back.

Knowing how to defend oneself is half the battle. Actually doing it with confidence, swiftness, and effectiveness takes concentrated effort.

Again, I cannot stress this enough – the intent in any self defense situation is to debilitate and/or demobilize your attacker to allow yourself the ability to escape and get far enough away to call for help. Any attempt to seriously maim or kill a person can run the risk of being considered above and beyond self defense, and could carry with it some serious legal repercussions. If you can successfully remove yourself from harm’s way without fatality, that is the absolute best course of action.

One major point when fighting back is to be as loud as possible. Scream at the top of your lungs. Words like help might not generally work, as nowadays (unfortunately) people are not as likely to respond – instead or in addition, yell words like stop, get away from me, call the police, and the one I teach my youngest students? Fire. It may sound bizarre, but according to local police departments, people nearby are more likely to respond to someone yelling about there being a fire than anything else. Whatever you yell, make it loud and make it demand attention.

When fighting back, a person has to be extremely confident and careful with their actions to ensure the highest potential of effectiveness. If you have viewed my self defense tutorial videos, the first thing I mention is that the first move in any self defense situation is going to be the most crucial. If a person’s very first move is not executed properly or with enough confidence, it can be detrimental and lessen one’s chance of overpowering the assailant. The first and most important element when fighting back is the element of surprise. Should that first move fail, the element of surprise is lost, and quite possibly the window of opportunity as well.

So bottom line, whatever that first move is – whether it’s fighting back with an object you’ve armed yourself with, or applying physical techniques – make it strong, follow through, be loud, and most importantly: be confident that you will succeed. Any hesitation or insecurity can seriously cost you when it comes to the effectiveness of your attack.  Train yourself to be ready at all times and to know your choices (when/how to escape, how to attack, etc) – be ready and be practiced so that you don’t clam up in the moment. Most of all, give it all you’ve got, and don’t stop fighting back until you’ve broken free and are in the clear to run for help.

⇒ Recap.

My chief master instructor refers to The 5 A’s of Self Defense: 

  1. Attitude – carry yourself with confidence; posture and body language should reflect strength and awareness, not insecurity and weakness.
  2. Awareness – always be aware of your surroundings, situation, and environment at all times.
  3. Avoidance – avoid any possibly dangerous situations, and when “fight or flight” mode kicks in, choose flight first if possible.
  4. Armament – doing something is always better than nothing; if you grab something to use as a weapon, plan to use it or else it can be used against you.
  5. Attack – be loud, be confident, protect your head, and follow through.

My final recommendation: if you are seriously worried about your safety and the ability to defend yourself if needed, find a local martial arts studio that specializes in self defense courses. For women in particular, there are actually quite an abundance of seminars geared specifically toward women that teach specific techniques that are most effective for a woman’s build and abilities. Do your research, ask around, check reviews – and sign up. It will be one of the best things you could ever do for yourself.

⇒ See Also: “Self Defense Video Tutorial #1: Lapel Grab Attack


Related & Useful Links:

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