6 Self-Defense Basics Everyone Should Know

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman doing self defense
UW Medicine

Carry pepper spray. Keep your keys laced between your fingers. Don’t wear headphones at night. 

There’s a lot of advice about what to do to protect yourself from attack or assault.   

Assault is never the fault of the person attacked — regardless of what they wear, how much they drink or whether they decide to pop in headphones.  

Nonetheless, for some people, learning the basics of self-defense can increase confidence and help them feel more prepared if they find themselves in a threatening situation.  

Self-defense is more than knowing how to throw a punch — and Sergeant Ryan Skiffington, a public safety officer with the University of Washington Medical Center’s Department of Public Safety, believes the best way to stay safe is to stick with disengagement tactics.  

“Specific moves get thrown out of the window in real world attacks,” he says. “If you don’t train a lot on the techniques, chances are you will not execute them properly.” 

Instead, Skiffington recommends these simple self-defense and disengagement concepts that can help get you out of dangerous situations. 

Be aware of your surroundings 

“Situational awareness is the key to all of this,” Skiffington says.  

Looking around and being aware of what is happening near you can help you notice sudden movement or if something seems out of place. If you don’t feel comfortable in a situation — say, walking back to your car after a late shift — it’s best to return to the place you came from and ask someone to walk with you. 

Skiffington also recommends cutting back on your phone usage while walking. 

“One, you could hurt yourself by waking into something or tripping on a curb and falling. Two, someone could attempt to steal you phone right out of your hand,” Skiffington says. 

Plus, if someone intends to harm you, it will be harder for them to surprise you if you are looking up and are aware of what’s going on around you. 

De-escalate if possible 

De-escalation will look different depending on what an attacker wants, but it comes down to doing what you can to safely leave a situation without having to fight. 

So, if an attacker wants money, give it to them. If someone is picking a fight, don’t engage, even if they are rude or insulting your pride.  

“Threats should be taken seriously. Do your best to get away from the person and call for help if necessary,” Skiffington says. 

Maintain distance from your attacker 

In a situation where you are walking home and think someone is following you, you want to keep distance between the two of you and, if possible, return to the place you came from. There, tell someone what is going on and get help.  

If you can’t get back to your point of origin, maintain as much distance as possible, then turn and look at the attacker. This might feel like the exact opposite of what you want to do, but Skiffington explains some attackers will back down when they see you are aware of them.  

In cases where you do have some space, dial 911 to get help or use the panic button on your phone (hold down the side button and one of the volume buttons on an iPhone) to automatically call emergency services. 

It also helps to keep objects between you and the attacker (think things like cars, tables or anything else nearby). If you end up in a situation where you do need to fight to protect yourself, do your best to avoid getting backed up against a wall.  

Plan (and prepare for) your escape route 

Unsafe situations are no time for decorum.  

Take off high heels, jewelry and any other items that restrain your movement. You want to be able to run to safety if needed.  

If you’re near your car, Skiffington recommends keeping your keys in your hand for easy access and using the panic button if you have one, which will cause your car to create noise and flash its lights. Keeping your keys handy will help you get into your car faster, and the commotion from your car can draw others to you to help.  

Train with a weapon before carrying it 

Lots of people keep pepper spray or brass knuckles on their key chains in case of an attack — but having a weapon doesn’t mean you will be able to effectively use it. 

“Most of the time people buy weapons and just leave them in a place they won’t be able to get to in time to use them. Often, weapons are used against the victim because they haven’t trained adequately to use the tool in the first place,” Skiffington says. 

Whether it’s a firearm, knife, taser or pepper spray, be sure you know how to use a weapon before keeping it on your person. (In other words, if you don’t know how to use that pepper spray keychain, it’s best to not carry it.) 

Practice disengagement moves 

Even with the best de-escalation tactics, you might be put in a situation where you have to defend yourself physically.  

“In all the fights I have been in over 21 years of hospital security, none of them looked like how I trained,” Skiffington says. “Just focus on the basic principles of the techniques and keep fighting. The will to survive is a powerful weapon all by itself.” 

Ready for some basic disengagement moves? Let’s get started.  

Supportive stance 

In a fight, you want to assume a position with your weight distributed on both feet, a slight bend in your knees and your hands up and ready. 

Standing at an angle will help you keep your balance if someone hits you, plus makes it easier to turn and run. 

Support Stance
Don't stand straight facing your attacker. Do stand at an angle with your knees bent.
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Break free from an arm grab 

If an attacker grabs your arm, swing it down toward where their thumb and fingers meet (the weakest part of the hold). 

Yelling or stomping while you rip your arm down can startle the attacker and make it easier to break free.  

Break free from an arm grab
If an attacker grabs your arm, swing it down to break their grip.
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Break free from someone grabbing your clothes 

If someone grabs your clothing, you want to grab a handful of your clothing near where their grasp is with one hand and hold their wrist with the other. 

At the same time, pull your clothing back while you push their wrist away.  

Grab your clothing and the attacker's wrist.
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Pulling clothing away from another person
Pull your clothing and push away from the attacker.
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Break free from a neck grab and arm bar choke hold 

As much as you can, you want to avoid letting someone close enough to you that they are able to grab your neck.  

However, if they do, raise your arms above your head so your shoulders squish their hands, loosening their grip, then twist away.  

Escape a neck grab
First put your hands over your head, then squish the attacker’s hands between your shoulder and neck.
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Roll out of neck grab
Turn out and escape.
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Arm bar choke holds are hard to get out of, but you do have some options. First, tuck your chin into the crook of the attacker’s elbow while pulling down on their forearm to protect your airway. Pulling down on their arm will also help create some room so the attacker isn’t able to compress the arteries in your neck. 

To escape the hold, pull on the attacker’s arm and crouch down. Back around the person as much as you can, then push away on the arm against your neck as you tuck your head through the circle of their arms and turn out of the hold.  

Escape an armbar choke hold
Tuck your chin and pull down on attacker’s arm, then back around the attacker.
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Escape an armbar choke hold
Slip through the attacker's arms and push away.
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