It is important to be aware of weapons which may potentially be used by either yourself or an attacker. Weapons can be either purpose made, such as firearms, or improvised, such as using a handful of change to distract someone. On the personal scale, weapons fall into four broad categories (with a few potential exceptions): projectile weapons, edged weapons, blunt weapons, and distraction weapons (see the various articles on these weapon types). It is important to consider weapons that you might have access to (and whether you are justified in using them, see Legality of Self Defence) and also weapons that an attacker might be carrying or be able to reach.
The physical environment includes exits, terrain, and obstacles. When in a given space, you should be aware of avenues of escape should a crisis develop such as a fire or a person attempting to assault you. You should be aware of as many avenues of escape as possible, but there may be only a few (say two doors and a window) or even one (such as when you’re in an office or closet). When seeking to escape a situation, priority should be given to exits that you know will lead toward more strategically favourable locations. For example, frequently you want to exit the building you are in, but other favourable locations might include the principal’s office in a school or a more populated area of an office building after hours. Generally, you want to be where there are people who can assist you (although see the [article/post] on diffusion of responsibility). If you don’t know what is beyond a given exit, it should be avoided if there are better alternatives (for example, someone told me a story of attempting to escape from an upset person, but the door they escaped through led to the basement and the person then had them trapped). Finally, the time it takes to get through an exit is important. If someone is attacking you, the odds of opening and then getting through a window without them striking or grabbing you are fairly low. Even getting through a door can be tricky because any locks must be disengaged, the handle must be turned, and if the door opens into the room you must make space for it. The terrain is important because it affects how quickly and easily you can move. If the ground is slippery, say due to ice, kicks would be more risky as they would compromise your balance, and even running could be challenging. Obstacles can also impact self defence strategy. They can impede escape, but can also be used to obstruct an attacker.
You should pay attention to the people around you. You should know the number of people around you and their location and distance from you. This is obviously easier with fewer people rather than more and I don’t necessarily expect everyone to be able to be constantly aware of the exact number and composition of crowds of hundreds of people. What is especially relevant are those who might harm you. You should pay attention to the body language and facial expressions of those you can see (see post on Body Language). You should also be aware of animals which might be a threat. Generally this means fairly large animals (this can vary, of course, as some small animals (e.g. certain spiders) can be quite threatening). For the most part, body language applies to animals as well, though of course the language / dialect is different.
Your first layer of defence when it comes to protecting yourself is awareness. Awareness can encompass multiple elements, which I shall outline here.
Your level of alertness should match the situation in which you find yourself (see the post on Colour Codes). Generally, there are several key factors that you should be aware of. These are: people (and animals) around you, the physical environment, and weapons (both purpose-made and improvised).
As suggested in the post on Colour Codes, the degree to which I pay attention to any of these factors is going to depend on my specific situation. For example, I am writing this [article/post] in a park on Centre Island. Since I’m not at home or in an otherwise secured environment, I’m in Code Yellow, a state of relaxed awareness. I’m glancing around periodically to keep abreast of the movement of people in my vicinity. I’m also able to hear the footsteps of people approaching. I make eye contact with (and smile at, when appropriate) whomever passes within a few meters, thus allowing me to gauge their intent in addition to being friendly. With the exception of a tree and some bushes behind me, the area is mostly grass and is fairly flat. There are picnic tables which would hamper certain lines of movement. These could be used as a barrier to make it more difficult for an attacker to reach me. I know that I could use my laptop, cell phone, and backpack as improvised weapons, if the need arose. There is also an empty beer bottle which someone has left nearby which I could use if necessary. There are a number of sticks and tree branches scattered around which, though they are out of my reach, someone might use to attack me. Writing all of this makes me feel like I sound paranoid, however, nothing could be farther from the truth. I am relaxed, enjoying a beautiful Summer day and a lovely view of the city across the lake and plenty of folks for me to indulge my people-watching hobby (humans are endlessly fascinating). I was aware of all of the things I wrote about above without really being conscious of them because practice has allowed me to be aware with a minimum of effortful attention.
Awareness also includes being aware of risk factors. For example, being aware of patterns of criminal behaviour where you live and researching patterns in places you will visit. If criminals use a common ruse to initiate their attack, it is important to be aware of these. A classic example could be someone asking, “Do you have the time?” in order to distract the target of their mugging attempt while they get in close and/or pull out their weapon. It is important to get accurate information and the media may not always be the best source as they tend to a bias toward sensationalism.
There are four key strategies that I recommend to address self-defence situations: awareness, avoidance, de-escalation, and escape. These are part of a hierarchy, from most preferred to least preferred. They shall be expanded upon in individual posts.
Awareness denotes being aware of people around you, the physical environment, and potential weapons. Avoidance is about avoiding trouble that you are aware of. De-escalation involves using negotiating strategies to calm an aggressive person. Escape utilizes physical responses to remove an attacker’s ability to harm you. This might involve striking them, but the primary goal remains to escape, not to “defeat” them.