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Tips for Self-Protection: Physical and Mental

Advice from a former Secret Service agent-turned-psychologist.

  • Knowing you have self-defense skills can help you remain calm amidst danger.
  • You do not need to be an expert in order to protect yourself — even learning just five self-defense moves will do.
  • Other mind and body techniques can help you stay safe as well, such as being mindful of your surroundings and focusing on your physical fitness.

What would you do if you felt physically or emotionally threatened in some way? Do you trust your ability to escape a dangerous situation without harm? Would you remain calm and grounded, responding if needed in an appropriate way, or do you fear you’d panic — making a frightening situation worse?

The ability to respond to danger and protect yourself both physically and mentally from violence and fear is a valuable life skill, especially in these times of uncertainty, protest, and unrest. Simply knowing you have the tools to respond in the case of a physical or mental assault can bring peace of mind and boost your self-confidence—even if you never have to use them.

As a former US Secret Service Agent and international protection professional, I co-led a team protecting top Colombian officials — including the president, vice president, and minister of defense — at a time when Colombia was nicknamed “the kidnap capital of the world.” Its government was in the throes of a bloody war with guerilla and terrorist groups. Three Americans had just been kidnapped and the State Department had issued an alarming Level 3 (Orange) Travel Advisory.

I have worked undercover, had a bounty placed on my head, and kept a watchful eye on drugged-up thugs on the streets of countries such as Haiti, Peru, and Colombia. High-profile individuals I’ve protected include members of the Versace family, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the grandchildren of President George H. W. Bush. I talk about all this in my memoir, The Protector: A Woman’s Journey From the Secret Service to Guarding VIPs and Working in Some of the World’s Most Dangerous Places.

It wasn’t often that I needed to use the self-protection skills I’d been trained in — although when I did, I was beyond grateful I learned and practiced them, tirelessly. And, as one of the tiny minority of women in this male-dominated field, I am thankful for the sense of peace and empowerment that simply having these skills, and the ability to stay calm amidst danger, gave me.

My personal motto: Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.

Doing so requires not just physical toughness but also mental toughness, a skill I now help people build in my second career as a psychologist. Although in an ideal world, nobody would ever find themselves facing threat or danger, here are the basic steps I recommend you take in order to protect yourself, physically and mentally, in uncertain and frightening times, and for all time:

  • Learn your surroundings. This will train you to notice when something is out of place (e.g. it’s 90 degrees outside and there is somebody walking around your neighborhood in a long winter coat). Make “surroundings checks” a habit, almost like a game, taking mental note of anything unusual that has changed. This will help prevent you from being caught off guard.
  • Learn five self-defense moves. You do not need to have a black belt in martial arts to effectively protect yourself and boost your self-confidence. Take a weekend self-defense class and learn just five techniques. Then, practice them until they are natural and are part of your muscle memory. There are many excellent techniques to choose from, including knife and/or gun takeaways, getting yourself out of a chokehold, and breaking someone’s nose with a palm strike.
  • Choose the lens through which you look at things. When you notice you are starting to panic or become scared, focus on acting, not thinking. For example, shift from “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what to do…” and freezing in the process, to telling yourself, calmly, “I am going to get myself out of this situation, now!” and acting. Always tell yourself you can do something — it could be a matter of life or death.
  • Focus on your physical fitness. This is the key to both mental and physical health, and for mental and physical preparedness in any situation. When you are strong and fit physically, you are more fit mentally and you are more self-confident and likely to respond with clarity and, if needed, strength and speed.
  • Find your voice. Voice is a stun technique that can buy you 2 to 4 seconds that you need to either run or disorient your attacker. If someone is making you uncomfortable—for example, by walking close behind you on the street in the middle of the night — turn around, put your hand up, signaling, “stop,” and scream, “Stop!” Then, run. Oddly, people are embarrassed to do this. Don’t be! It will stun your attacker and buy you valuable time.
  • Meditate. Meditation is proven to reduce stress, decrease fear and anxiety, boost positive mood, and promote emotional health and self-esteem. It is a tool that makes you more self-aware and increases focus. The best part is — is available anytime, anywhere. Do it! It will shift your mindset and serve you well in any situation — stressful or otherwise.
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