A Guide to Self-Defense: When it is necessary and what you should know about it

    In a world that can be at times filled with danger, it is a human right and our most important ability to be able to protect ourselves. Today, we want to look at the principle of self-defense, when you should be using self-defense techniques and how the law treats the topic in different countries.

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    Introduction to Self-Defense and its Importance in Daily Life

    Self-defense refers to the legal and ethical right of an individual to protect themselves from harm or danger. It is a fundamental human right recognized in many legal systems around the world.

    It is based on the idea that when someone faces a threat of physical harm, they are allowed to use “reasonable force” in order to protect both themselves and others. What exactly constitutes reasonable force can vary depending on the laws of different countries. Scroll to part seven of this article in order to find out more on differences between some country’s self-defense laws.

    Self-defense tends to be used in situations of violence and threat to bodily safety, such as fights and altercations, robberies, sexual assault but even bullying and other forms of mental harm being done by one person to another.

    Most of us will experience some type of attack on either our physical or mental safety in our lifetime. According to the FBI, in the US in 2019 a rape was committed every 3.8 minutes, an aggravated assault every 38.5 seconds and a violent crime every 26.3 seconds.In the US, twice as many women are victim of stalking than men.

    The Fundamental Rights Survey of 2021 revealed that more than one in four Europeans were victims of harassment and 22 million were physically attacked. Almost one in every five women has been subjected to stalking since the age of 15 in the EU and around 9 million women in the EU experienced stalking within a period of 12 months.

    Bullying, which now has mainly moved online, is a major reason why mental self-defense is becoming increasingly important. In fact, Pew revealed in 2022 that almost half of all US teens have been subjected to some type of cyberbullying, including name calling and physical threats. Another Pew study from 2021 further showed this is not just an issue among children and teenagers. In fact, four in ten Americans under 30 had gone through online harassment. In the EU, a 2020 survey revealed an average of 14% of people are cyberbullied, although the amount varies greatly between the different countries: Poland reported a staggering 26%, while Italy only had 5%.

    This reality we live in makes self-defense an important skill for us to acquire. Aside from quite literally being able to save your life, however, self-defense can be important for a number of reasons. You do not just gain the ability to protect yourself, but also increase both your physical and emotional fitness. This translates to you having more self-esteem and confidence. It can train your instinctive reactions and make you become more mentally prepared to deal with difficult or threatening situations. Simply put, having the knowledge that you possess self-defense skills can help you stay calm when facing danger. This could be crucial for the outcome of the dangerous situation you find yourself in.

    As the motto goes: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”

    Situational Awareness and Mental Preparedness

    One way of being prepared is by developing situational awareness and mental preparedness. The former is the ability to perceive and understand your surroundings, understand the implications of events and make informed decisions based on your understanding. One field in which this is very useful is ensuring personal safety.

    A concept closely linked to situational awareness is Normalcy Bias, which refers to our tendency to focus on the familiar and blend out anything that doesn’t fit in with our regular view of the world.

    The problem is this may hinder our reactions in emergencies. To train our situation awareness we need to practice staying alert, quickly assess surroundings and identify threats and use this information to make informed choices. This can help enhance reaction time especially in unforeseen or dangerous scenarios.

    Ways to improve your situational awareness are to practice mindfulness and focus on hidden details. The ability to observe and perceive subtle clues, such as body language or environmental changes, can indeed be trained. Also make sure to sharpen your critical thinking skills to make more informed decisions and further your adaptability by challenging assumptions and staying open-minded.

    Read more about situational awareness here

    Situational Awareness

    The next item on your self-defense checklist should be mental preparedness. This refers to a type of mental toughness in which you train yourself on how to deal with certain dangerous situations before they even occur.

    A way of doing so, aside from developing strong situational awareness and observation skills, is to choose the lens through which you view situations. Choose a proactive mindset in challenging situations, shifting from fear to action and believing in your ability to make a difference, even in life-threatening scenarios.

    A US military program conducted mental toughness training with the main goal of making soldiers more resilient by helping them to think like optimists. Indeed, positive thinking increases a person’s ability to endure and even thrive in difficult, stressful situations.

    Basic relaxation techniques further help calm yourself down in stressful situations. These could include meditation, breathing techniques, yoga or other practices you may find helpful. What is important is to learn and use these techniques in daily life, so when a stressful situation occurs, you can automatically make use of them.

    Another way to build mental preparedness is to study emergency procedure knowledge for anything you deem relevant. You learn a new skill, such as fire-starting or first aid, which boosts your confidence that you can survive tricky situations on your own, thus making you more mentally prepared. In our app you will find various first aid related content and a deep dive on CPR.

    And finally, a tip from a Navy Seal is to do Emergency Conditioning (EC). This is a technique that prepares individuals for unfamiliar situations by mentally simulating them in advance, aiming to reduce fear and stress during real-life encounters. By envisioning detailed disaster scenarios, such as fires or attacks, the thoroughness of this practice enhances its effectiveness in preparing the mind for potential emergencies.

    When Using Self-Defense Techniques is Appropriate

    Physical self-defense should always be a last resort in specific situations, whereas mental self-defense is a useful toolkit that can strengthen your ability to withstand stressors, as well as being helpful in specific situations of bullying and emotional abuse. Here are a few scenarios in which using self-defense techniques is generally considered appropriate.

    • An imminent threat of physical harm

    • Protecting others

    • No way of escaping a dangerous situation

    • If de-escalation techniques fail

    • To prevent abduction

    • To resist emotional manipulation or psychological harm

    • To stand up against cyberbullying and online harassment

    • To enforce personal boundaries

    • For crisis management during times of extreme stress

    Most sources talking about physical self-defense techniques are quick to point out that any physical techniques should only be used as an absolute last resort and be proportionate to the threat. However, what exactly is considered proportionate depends on each country’s or even state’s own interpretation, as we will discuss further later on.

    The Difference between Physical and Mental Self-Defense

    Physical and mental self-defense are two different concepts that are still closely connected. At the root of it, both have the goal of protecting oneself from harm.

    The difference is that physical self-defense refers to techniques and strategies used to protect your physical safety, i.e. if someone attacks you and wants to hurt your body with violence. Physical self-defense trains individuals to be able to defend themselves against violent assaults and often can contain techniques from various martial arts such as strikes, blocks or ways to break free from grabs. Physical self-defense classes are already a common sight in most countries.

    Mental self-defense, on the other hand, refers to strategies and techniques to protect yourself from psychological and emotional harm. This includes manipulation, coercion and other non-physical threats that could negatively impact your mental health. Mental self-defense techniques include building resilience, setting boundaries and maintaining a positive outlook on life.

    Mental self-defense is particularly relevant in our digital age, as distressing online interactions, cyberbullying and online scams have become serious societal issues that threaten many people’s well-being.

    By developing awareness about emotional abuse and by building mental resilience, people are much better equipped to deal with instances of bullying and emotional violence. That being said, mental self-defense is an emerging field that currently does not yet have the type of systemic teaching and classes that physical self-defense has.

    So, while physical self-defense is meant to protect the body, mental self-defense protects the mind. Both are equally important to ensure personal safety and the ability to stay out of harms’ way in threatening situations.

    Types of Physical Self-Defense

    Physical self-defense techniques are designed to empower people to defend themselves or help them escape dangerous situations. Common forms of physical self-defense include:

    Verbal De-Escalation and Distraction

    By using assertive verbal communication you can try to de-escalate the situation and create a chance to escape. Here are three different ways you could go about this:

    Creating Distance and Assertive Communication

    If someone approaches you in a confrontational manner or makes you feel unsafe in any way, take a step back to create some distance while maintaining a non-threatening posture. Use a calm and confident but not aggressive tone of voice.

    For example, if you find yourself in a taxi with a driver who makes you feel unsafe, you may want to get out of the car in order to ensure that no harm comes to yourself. You may say something along the lines of: “Excuse me, I just remembered that I need to get something from the supermarket. Please let me off at the next one.” If the driver still does not comply, you should try becoming more assertive. You might say: “I am asking you kindly to let me get out here. Thank you.” If they still refuse, you can say: “I am sure you do not want to keep me in this taxi against my will. Stop the car now so I can get out.” If they still refuse, you can tell them you will call the police and if they do not comply, immediately dial the emergency number.

    Empathy and Defusing Aggression

    If you sense someone is becoming aggressive, try to connect with their emotions. Use active listening to understand their concerns and acknowledge their feelings. Some sentences you may want to use to express empathy and show you are listening are as follows:

    “I can see how important this is to you.” “I understand this can be frustrating.” “I know this process can be confusing.” “I’m sorry to see that you’re in this situation.” “I’d like to help you if I can.” “Let’s see if we can solve this together.”

    Offering a Way Out and Distracting

    In a tense situation, find a way of introducing a distraction to shift the agitated person’s focus away from aggression. Redirect their attention toward a common interest.

    For example, ask them a question, such as “Do you know what the next point on the agenda is?” or casually point out something interesting nearby, like a piece of artwork or a unique plant. Say something along the lines of: “Hey, did you notice that amazing painting/car/musical instrument over there? It's quite cool, don't you think?"

    While discussing the item, inquire about their interests. "By the way, have you always been into art/cars/music? Tell me more about why." This shifts their focus away from the argument and onto something they both share a mutual interest in, easing the tension.

    Strike Techniques

    Using parts of your body such as palms, fingers or knees to attack the perpetrator’s weak spots such as nose, throat, grain, stomach or eyes.

    Watch a detailed demonstration here.

    Escapes and Releases

    This includes techniques that enable you to to break free from grabs, holds, or other forms of physical restraint, for example wrist escapes, where you break free from their grip, or arm bars to force them into submission by applying pressure on their elbow.

    Follow this link for an instructional video on escapes and releases.

    Ground Defense

    These are ways to defend yourself from harm if you have been thrown to the ground, such as the guard position to protect your head and face and using your hips and legs to create space to roll away from an attacker on top of you.

    Find a video introducing ground defense here.

    The primary objective of most self-defense techniques is to escape and seek help rather than actively harm the opponent.

    It is also important to remember that most self-defense classes are designed with certain people in mind, e.g. able-bodied grown men and women, whereas vulnerable populations such as young children, elderly people or the disabled population may need different techniques in order to protect themselves. Be sure to consider this, when choosing the type of self-defense course you want to take.

    Regular training and practice with qualified self-defense instructors is important in order to ensure you can effectively apply these techniques in real life, should you need to.

    Types of Mental Self-Defense

    Mental self-defense refers to the psychological and emotional strategies and techniques used to protect oneself from various stressors, negative influences, and potential threats to mental well-being. You can read in-depth about different types of strategies to navigate difficult situations here.

    Here is a broad overview of the main mental self-defense techniques:

    Positive Self-Talk

    The way you speak to yourself has a real impact on your self-confidence and mental health. Replace self-doubt and negative inner dialogue with encouraging and empowering statements.

    Setting Boundaries

    Establish clear boundaries in terms of what behavior you accept towards you from others. This also includes learning to say “no” to others’ requests assertively communicating them, so you do not end up overwhelmed or uncomfortable with what you are being asked to do.

    Emotional Regulation

    Learn to manage your emotions effectively through different techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness meditation to stay calm and centered during stressful times.

    Avoid Negative Influences

    Make sure that the media you consume and the company you keep do not negatively impact your mental state. Limit exposure to negative news and social media, especially if you are a victim of cyberbullying and online harassment. Where possible try to avoid too much contact with people who cause you unnecessary stress or leave you feeling bad about yourself.

    Building up your mental defenses helps you be able to better handle the difficult times in life. These techniques can enhance your resilience and make sure you have a more positive outlook on life.

    Legal Aspects of Self-Defense

    While the concept of self-defense may sound straightforward in theory, in practice the situation is not so clear cut. One problem that frequently pops up is the question of what amounts to an appropriate or reasonable amount of force on the part of the person defending themselves. What is an unreasonable amount?

    Courts tend to ask the following questions in such cases:

    • Did the victim provoke the attack?

    • Should they have retreated instead?

    • What if the victim felt a threat actually existed when in fact it did not?

    • Are they allowed a violent response in such a case?

    The exact rules vary not just between countries but even between individual states in a country like the US. However, there are some common themes. Here is an overview:

    Is the Threat Imminent?

    Is the threat imminent? This means it is certain to occur. The threat can even be just verbal, if it threatens physical harm to the victim self-defense is justified. Merely offensive words, however, are no reason.

    So, if a person threatens to kill their partner, while holding a knife, self-defense would certainly be justified. However, once the threat has ended, it would no longer be legally acceptable to continue any use of force. In this instance, it would be considered retaliatory rather than self-defense.

    For example, if one football player punched the other one during a match and the second one waited until their next encounter to return the favor, this would not be considered self-defense, as the imminent threat of harm was already over.

    Was the fear of harm reasonable?

    In some cases, a person may think they are being attacked due to a misunderstanding and therefore defend themselves, for example if a stranger suddenly came up to them and started waving their arms. The stranger may have just been chasing a bee away, but to the other person it presented like an attack. In this case, a court would probably rule that the use of force was justified, even though the perceived attacker meant no harm and was actually just trying to help.

    Proportional Response

    According to most countries' laws, during self-defense, the response needs to match the level of the threat. You should only use as much force as necessary to remove the threat. If the attacker uses only minor force but the person defending themselves uses force that can cause serious bodily harm, they can no longer claim self-defense.

    Can you hit first?

    The answer to this one is: it depends. You need a good reason, for example someone visibly getting ready to throw a punch by clenching their fists, so you are allowed to punch them first. The court will also look at the overall context, such as how was their physical build compared to yours and did you use malicious force.

    Different Countries, Different Laws

    The US in particular has some particular laws that do not exist in other countries such as the UK, Germany or Austria. There are the "Stand Your Ground" and "Castle Doctrine" concepts.

    Stand Your Ground: In many states, individuals have the right to use deadly force to defend themselves without any obligation to retreat first, even if they are outside their home.

    Castle Doctrine: This doctrine allows individuals to use force, including deadly force, to protect their homes or "castles" if an intruder unlawfully enters their home.

    The main difference between the US and the above countries is the debate of stand your ground versus retreat. The latter generally emphasize the need to retreat and use force only when absolutely necessary.

    Then there is of course the right to use deadly force, which is allowed in many states in the US when protecting oneself, one’s home, or even others. In the UK, Germany and Austria deadly force is much more heavily regulated and is only permissible in situations where there is a genuine fear of serious harm or death.

    The legal definition of what constitutes reasonable force also varies between countries. In the UK, it means using the least amount of force necessary to protect oneself. In the US., however, reasonable force is much broader due to the generally more lenient self-defense laws.

    Pepper Spray

    In the US, the use of pepper spray to defend oneself is considered normal. Austria also allows people over 18 to carry pepper spray and use it in emergencies, when they are facing the threat of physical harm. However, this is not the case in all countries around the world. The UK, Australia and Germany all do not allow its use for self-defense, with the former two even considering it a prohibited or controlled weapon.

    The examples above alert us to a simple truth – what we have learned to be legal when it comes to self-defense may not apply in other countries. This is why it is important to have a basic awareness of local laws, in order to make sure you do not unexpectedly find yourself on the wrong side of the law.


    Self-defense, both mental and physical, can help us live our lives to the fullest and ensure we remain safe, even when we face external threats and emergencies. However, self-defense goes beyond mere combat techniques and we want to be sure to also train our situational awareness and mental preparedness. Finally, don’t forget about taking the law into account, especially when traveling in unfamiliar territory. When in doubt, retreat!

    Do you have any tips and tricks we should know about?

    Has developing your self-defense skills impacted the way you see the world around you and the way you carry yourself?

    We would love to hear from you! Get in touch any time at hello@vigilios.com.

    And stay safe!


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    2. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2019/crime-in-the-u.s.-2019/topic-pages/crime-clock
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    5. https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/fra-2021-crime-safety-victims-rights-summary_en.pdf
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    11. https://www.legacyfoodstorage.com/blogs/news/102357511-ready-for-anything-mental-preparedness
    12. https://www.primalsurvivor.net/mental-preparedness/
    13. https://www.livereal.com/psychology/psychological-self-defense/
    14. https://www.streetwisedefence.com/blog/2022/10/28/verbal-de-escalation
    15. https://apfmnet.org/calming-upset-people-with-ear/
    16. https://www.vigilios.com/insights/types-of-mental-self-defense
    17. https://www.findlaw.com/criminal/criminal-law-basics/self-defense-overview.html
    18. https://www.oesterreich.gv.at/themen/dokumente_und_recht/waffenrecht/Seite.2450220.html
    19. https://www.keithborer.co.uk/news/blinded-by-science-pepper-sprays-and-the-law/
    20. https://peoplesafe.co.uk/blogs/what-counts-as-reasonable-force-when-defending-yourself/
    21. Photos by Roman Aguila, Oxana Melis on Unsplash
A profile picture of Ana-Marija Autischer
by Ana-Marija Autischer
The visionary Founder & CEO of Vigilios, where her extensive research into travel safety over the past two years has positioned her at the forefront of the industry. With a keen eye for innovation, she translates complex safety concepts into practical advice for travelers worldwide.

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