The Three Phases of Escalation in Self-Defense

Excerpt from The Psychology of Self-Defense by Chris Sutton

Your first line of defense should always be to avoid conflict by making yourself a hard target – someone who is rejected during a bad guy’s selection process. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, “stuff happens.” Therefore you need to know how to handle the conflicts that do occur.

Any conflict has three phases or stages: Awareness, Alarm, and Action.


During the Awareness phase, you stay constantly alert as to where you are, what you’re doing, and what’s going on around you. You should be in this stage all the time, in an effort to prevent a conflict from occurring. But your awareness also allows you to realize as early as possible that a conflict is indeed imminent – hopefully before the situation gets completely out of control.

Signs you’re in the Awareness phase:

“Where are am I?”

“Who is around me?”

Noting environmental conditions

Maintaining personal security level

Looking for suspicious circumstances

Listening to your gut feeling


Once you become aware that something just isn’t right, you enter the Alarm phase. Even if you don’t know yet exactly what’s wrong – or whether there’s really anything wrong at all – you enter a state of heightened awareness. This is your body’s way of preparing to deal with a crisis. This is also a good time to shift course, and hopefully avoid the potential conflict.

Signs you’re in the Alarm phase:

Feeling that something isn’t right

Recognizing a potential threat

Thinking accelerates

Auditory & visual exclusion (tunnel vision) occurs

Decision-making ability is impaired

Shortness of breath

Adrenaline rush (fight or flight)


Now there’s no longer any doubt – like it or not, you’re under attack. Whether it’s a verbal, mental or physical altercation, you have to take action. Your wellbeing is at stake – maybe even your life. Whether or not you’re prepared to respond appropriately and effectively will determine the outcome of this situation.

Possible responses to the Action phase:

Physically remove from situation


Panic/paralysis (fear/giving up)


Counterattack (instinctual)

Once you’ve entered into any of these three phases of self-defense, your mind and body are warning you that you’re now escalating into a possible criminal act or crisis situation. By recognizing a potentially harmful situation in the Awareness or Alarm stage, you can likely avoid the Action stage. Remember, this is your body’s natural defense system, so listen to it.

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