Types of Mental Self-Defense

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    When we think of the term self-defense, most of us will immediately picture someone doing martial arts, i.e. physical self-defense to protect the body from harm.

    However, there's also the crucial aspect of protecting your mind and emotional well-being. This is called psychological or mental self-defense and it involves safeguarding our mental and emotional health.

    Mental self-defense is not only about reacting to negative situations but also proactively building mental strength and well-being to handle whatever comes your way. By practicing mental self-defense techniques and developing a strong mental foundation, you can enhance your overall resilience and lead a more fulfilling life.

    There are specific psychological and emotional strategies and techniques that can be used to protect yourself from various stressors and negative influences. In this article we will take a look at what emotions and tactics are involved in attacks on your mind and strategies on how to defend yourself against such threats and build a resilient and strong mental state.

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    Key Emotions in Psychological Self-Defense

    When it comes to our psychology being under threat, there are a range of emotions we might experience as part of this mental attack.

    The main emotions include fear, guilt, shame, confusion, resentment, stress.

    Someone who is afraid, feeling guilty or ashamed is easier to control. Using manipulation to emotionally confuse a victim is another way of exerting control. Resentment can also be exploited by manipulators, who point out or even hype up real or imagined injustices and then focusing the resulting hostility in a direction that serves their purposes. For example, politicians blaming foreigners for “taking people’s jobs” to distract from the real issues. Within families, people may stoke resentment by highlighting or escalating grievances, such as claiming one sibling gets preferential treatment by a parent over the other. This ends up creating a rift among family members.

    Finally, causing another person stress is yet another way to exert control over them. A manager, for example, could intentionally create an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear by frequently changing project deadlines, giving vague instructions, and providing inconsistent feedback. This constant state of ambiguity and pressure can lead to increased stress. In a romantic relationship, threats or intimidation can be means of causing a victim constant stress. A manipulator may directly threaten physical harm or other negative consequences if the partner doesn't comply with their demands. For instance, they could say something along the lines of, "If you don't do what I want, I'll hurt you," or "I'll ruin your life if you try to leave me."

    Tactics used by people who are mentally violating people range from passive aggressiveness, such as backhanded compliments, sarcasm and playing the victim, to emotional blackmail, i.e. threatening to harm you or themselves or bribing to get their way. Then there are attacks on one’s identity in the form of mocking, ridiculing, heckling, interrogating, undermining, or any form of questioning the basic foundations of a person’s identity.

    Finally, a way of attacking a person's mental defenses that has been receiving increased attention in recent years is gaslighting. This equates to causing someone to question the validity of their own thoughts, perceptions of reality and even memories. It can even go so far as to make the victim question their own sanity. The term originated from the 1944 film Gas Light, referring to the psychological manipulation tactic used by the husband to make his wife doubt her perception of reality by dimming the gaslights and then denying that anything had changed.

    Important Mental Self-Defense Techniques

    There are a number of self-defense techniques that can help strengthen your mind and protect your mental health. Here are some of the most common and effective ones:

    Positive Self-Talk

    Positive self-talk doesn’t mean ignoring the negative aspects of life but rather changing the narrative so you can see these issues in a more positive and productive way. Positive self-talk is a powerful tool that has the ability to reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-confidence, decrease negativity and foster overall happiness.

    In order to practice positive self-talk you first need to identify negative thinking. This usually takes the form of blaming everything on yourself, focusing solely on the negative aspects of an experience and forgetting the positives, catastrophizing by always expecting the worst and thinking only in black and white, i.e. good or bad.

    One way of doing positive self-talk is to treat yourself like you would a friend. Try not to say anything to yourself that you would not say to someone else. For example, you wouldn’t call your friend stupid or useless or ridiculous. However, many of us talk to ourselves like that on a daily basis.

    Another tactic is practicing gratitude. By finding things you are grateful for, you learn to focus on the good things you have in your life, which in turn can shift your attitude towards yourself to become more positive as well. Many people find writing a gratitude journal very helpful. In fact, it has been repeatedly scientifically proven that writing down positive experiences occurred throughout the day, week, or month in detail can help condition your brain to be more appreciative and grateful overall.

    One important factor is also to change your vocabulary. If you find yourself always saying “I can’t”, you are actually limiting yourself. Instead, whenever you are tempted to say “I can’t” replace it with “I can” instead.

    Finally, one way of really ramping up the positive self-talk is positive affirmations. You can either say them every day or even strategically place them in your home or place of work to repeatedly remind you to practice self-compassion. Examples of positive affirmations are “I have value and purpose.”, “Fear is only a feeling, it cannot hold me back.” or “I can’t control what other people think, say, or do. I can only control myself.”

    Setting Boundaries

    Often, when we find ourselves mentally drained or stressed, one reason may be that we struggle to set boundaries. People pleasers especially have difficulties saying “no” and try to make everyone else happy, forgetting about themselves in the process. As a result, they end up stretching themselves too thin.

    If you often experience feelings such as resentment, anger, anxiety or a feeling of being taken advantage of, this could mean you have not set strong boundaries and as a result, you are often being pushed past your own limits and values.

    Having boundaries in place is an important form of self-care that helps preserve your emotional and mental energy. For example, setting boundaries helps maintain a healthy work-life balance and allocate time to activities that improve our mental health.

    Boundaries also protect us against people and behaviors that affect us negatively, so we can avoid emotional harm. The enhanced self-awareness that setting boundaries creates helps us recognise our values, limits and triggers.

    The result of healthy boundaries are improved and more fulfilling relationships based on communication, respect and trust, as well as reduced stress and anxiety, as we have more control over our time and commitments.

    We can also strengthen our self-esteem and self-confidence this way and prevent co-dependency, where your well-being becomes excessively dependent on others. This is because healthy boundaries help maintain independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency.

    When setting boundaries, there are two types you want to take into consideration, external and internal ones. External boundaries tell other people how they should behave towards you, while internal boundaries allow you to manage both your time and emotions.

    But how do you set boundaries?

    First of all you will need to go through some serious self-reflection. Try examining your core values, needs and limits. Identifying your limits, as well as behaviors and people that drain your energy or cause stress, is key.

    Next, learn to follow your instincts. If your gut says “no”, listen to it.

    You also need to learn to say “no” to people and become more assertive. One way of doing this is by communicating your needs and wants clearly. Understand that it is alright to decline someone’s requests or demands if they go against your boundaries. This demonstrates self-respect.

    However, when doing so, consider using "I" statements in your conversations. This simple technique really helps communicate openly and honestly with others without coming across as hurtful or confrontational. "I" statements focus on behaviors, not on labeling people. You are saying: "Hey, this is how your action made me feel." This avoids conflict and is a more effective way of getting your wishes across.

    Incorporate healthy routines into your daily life. Once you have identified triggers, make sure to create a routine that observes your boundaries for example when it comes to work hours or time spent on social media as well as rest and relaxation time.

    Another important aspect to consider is to try carefully choosing your relationships, where possible. Of course you should not just cut anyone out of your life, because they said something negative. Furthermore, in some cases things are not as simple and some people can’t just be replaced.

    Yet, still try your best to surround yourself with people who will respect your boundaries and boost your mental health and try and limit time spent with people who negatively impact you and do not care about respecting your personal boundaries.

    However, don’t expect to go from zero to hero, start small instead. Facing challenges along the way is normal. When people try to test your boundaries, don’t falter and don’t give into feelings of guilt. Instead, don’t give in and you will feel proud about how far you have come.

    Finally, don’t forget to evaluate and adjust your boundaries regularly. Circumstances may change and you may find that boundaries you had previously set for yourself need adjusting to the new reality in your life.

    Emotional Regulation

    Emotional regulation refers to the ability to effectively exert control over your emotions through different methods. By recognizing our own emotions, we can stay calm and centered during stressful situations and become less impulsive.

    People who excel at regulating their emotions have high emotional intelligence, which makes them able to identify their own feelings and recognize the feelings of others. While they do experience negative feelings, they have coping strategies to help them regulate these feelings.

    These strategies include creating space. By taking a breath and pausing, we can reduce our agitation.

    The next important step is to become aware of what you are feeling. Think about the physical sensations in your body – upset stomach, racing heart or tension in your neck. These can be clues to what you are experiencing emotionally. This further has the side-effect of shifting your focus, so the intensity of your emotions can subside.

    Next, name the emotions you are feeling. Is it anger, sadness, disappointment, or resentment? Or are these just hiding the one strong emotion many feel deep down, which is fear? Once you have named the different emotions you may be feeling, identify what is causing them.

    Then comes acceptance. Accept that your emotions are valid and that this is a normal human reaction.

    Another strategy is to practice mindfulness. By staying in the moment, you can become aware of what is happening in a non-judgmental way. This helps you stay calm and avoid negative thoughts.

    While these are all strategies of how to cope with strong emotions that are already present, there are also ways of limiting your exposure to stressors in the first place. Look for triggers and patterns that are present when you start to feel strong emotions. Analyze what past experiences trigger you. Once you have identified the root cause, you can develop strategies to handle these situations better.

    Also pay attention to the story you are telling yourself. You may feel angry because a friend is not replying to a message and you have concluded they do not want to talk to you. The truth may however be completely different. Ask yourself what else could be going on to stop them from responding?

    Finally, when regulating emotions it is important to be aware of the fact that you can choose how to respond. If anger or fear causes you to lash out, this can damage your relationships. Therefore, once you recognize that you can choose how to respond, this is very empowering. Maybe you can tell someone you are feeling angry, rather than speaking harshly to them? See what happens once you change your approach.

    Building Resilience

    Mental resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks and adapt to challenges. When stress, adversity or trauma occur in our lives, we continue to experience anger, grief and pain but with resilience we are able to keep functioning in both the physical and psychological sense. Resilient people see failures as learning opportunities and look for activities that promote self-improvement and personal growth.

    Resilience protects you from mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety and helps offset previous trauma.

    One strategy to build strong resilience includes building strong, positive relationships with loved ones and friends, as they can help provide support and guidance.

    Another important aspect is doing something that gives you a sense of accomplishment and purpose every day.

    Also be sure to learn from past experiences. Remember how you got through previous difficult times to help you cope in the present.

    Practice self-care by doing activities you enjoy. If possible, include physical activity in your daily routine. Get enough sleep, eat healthy and use stress management techniques that work for you.

    Become a proactive person. Instead of ignoring problems, make a plan and take action.

    All of these steps will help you build your resilience, so you can make it through hard times.

    Avoiding Negative Influences

    Negative influences both from the media and people can seriously affect our mental health. That is why you want to do your best to cut anything that is a negative influence out of your life as much as possible.

    For example, limit the time you spend on social media or even consuming the news. It is good to be in the know, but spending too much time reading about all the disasters currently occurring or looking at all the curated feeds of your friends that make you feel unaccomplished is definitely not helpful for your mental state.

    The same goes for people who impact your emotional state in a negative way. Especially once you become aware of mental health, you will quickly realize that there are friends who leave you feeling happy and energized, and there are others that leave you feeling exhausted and emotionally drained.

    We want to refrain in this article from calling them toxic. As Hannah Baer argues in the Guardian: “Toxicity is unspecific. Toxic people are bullies or victims, overly involved or overly removed, too negative or too positive.” However, according to research even difficult personality styles may change over time. It has also uncovered that when people with power are domineering, this happens because of the power they were granted in this particular context, e.g. by being made a boss in a company. On the other hand, someone may be going through a hard time or depression themselves, and so their usual bubbly character could become muted while they battle the illness.

    Then there is also the possibility that the person you are spending time with provokes negative feelings in you about yourself, maybe jealousy and envy if they have a successful career or a family or any other aspects in life you would wish for but for some reason currently cannot realize.

    It is therefore important to take a step back and decide whether this persons’ friendship is important enough for you to spend time with them or whether it is more important to protect your own mental health at this point in time. This is also perfectly alright and you should not feel shame over choosing your mental stability.

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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