Aug. 27, 2014 at 8:44 AM ET
As students flood college campuses across the country, many female undergrads will explore their new surroundings, meet new friends — and may find their personal safety compromised at one point, whether at social events, inside dorm rooms or even just walking home at night from the library.
Colleges are trying to arm students with self-defense strategies, as well as raise their overall awareness about violence and sexual assault.
On Wednesday, personal security consultant Avital Zeisler demonstrated on TODAY self-defense techniques that all women in all stages of life can easily apply to protect themselves physically, and especially mentally. She said learning those techniques helped her overcome the trauma of a sexual assault.
"I’m redefining self defense for women, that it's about you attacking life and not letting it attack you," she said. "It's about learning how to create, how to live a life that you love but still know how to protect it."
Zeisler, who has helped train Hollywood actors for fight scenes, said all women can protect themselves by becoming harder targets, mainly by being more aware of their surroundings.
Here are 5 tips she provided to TODAY.com on how to do just that:
1. Increase peripheral vision
Widening your scope of vision will help you recognize suspicious people faster, as well as potential escape routes and what items nearby can be used as weapons, Zeisler said. A drill she often uses with her students to increase peripheral vision is to practice talking with someone while trying to identify what’s nearby without moving their head.
2. Locate the nearest exit
Not all exits are created equal, however. “Just because a sign hangs over a door doesn’t mean it’s a viable exit,” Zeisler said. The door may lead to a stairwell, a confined location she considers dangerous for women. Exits that immediately lead to the ground level or somewhere outdoors are best. If no such path exists, then prepare mentally to “close in and initialize the threat on the spot before you can safely escape.”
3. Improvised weapons
Nearly anything nearby can be turned into an impact weapon, such as a pen sitting in your pocket, or that snow globe on the nightstand. Always have something within arm’s reach that can be grabbed instinctively if confronted.
“It’s not just knowing what’s in your surroundings, but it’s also strategically placing things to make them work for you tactically in a worst-case scenario,” said Zeisler, who recommends holding keys (the longest or hardest, preferably) between your index and middle fingers.
Any weapon used can disrupt an attacker’s thought process and buy a victim time. “Even if we’re talking a few milliseconds, and in self defense that’s a lot of time,” she said.
4. The power of the purse
The purse makes a “phenomenal” shield, said Zeisler, who carries hers diagonally across her body. Using a purse as a shield will help redirect an attacker’s attention.
“It’s also effective because it frees your legs up, if you have to kick someone or do anything to weaken him before you close in on the person,” she said.
5. Stop and pass
If you think someone is following you, stop and let that person pass. Pretend you need to go in a different direction or take a phone call — just make sure you don’t expose your back to the person. Then look at the individual’s reaction, which may help confirm whether he or she is a potential threat.
Above all else, self-defense experts insist, trust your instincts. Lose the fear about coming across as rude and go with your natural intuition, Zeisler said.
If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, added Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
“If you feel like a situation doesn’t feel quite right, get out of there, or do what you need to do to find a friend,” he said. “Lie about it. Say you have to go to the bathroom or go outside, whatever you need if you’re feeling awkward or feeling pressure.”
Berkowitz said self-defense techniques have increasingly received more attention on school campuses nationwide. Many colleges now offer classes in a system known as Rape Aggression Defense.
“There’s also a lot of attention on prevention messaging, particularly bystander programs,” Berkowitz said, referring to methods that teach students about identifying social situations that could turn dangerous and how to use easy, non-confrontational ways to help remove themselves and their friends from those scenarios.
“It’s more of a mindset, in the same way that TSA or anybody else talks about, ‘See something, say something,’” he said. “It’s sort of, ‘Here are signs to look out for and here’s what you can do about it when you see them.'”
RAINN also offers a list of 8 tips to stay safe on campus as students head back to school.