One of the most dangerous and potentially deadly unarmed attacks a person can face is a choke. In addition to the pain and serious physical damage that a choke can produce, the fear and panic caused by the inability to breathe can be overwhelming.

From a physical standpoint, chokes are dangerous for a number of reasons. They directly target the trachea and larynx to restrict or cut off the body’s supply of air to the lungs. Without a supply of fresh air, the body cannot oxygenate the blood and ultimately the brain is deprived of the oxygen necessary to keep it alive. And, while manual choking with the hands would require several minutes of sustained effort to cause life-threatening brain damage via oxygen deprivation, a violent manual choke can produce a lethal injury in just a matter of seconds.

The neck contains many structures that are critical to life-supporting functions. The vagus nerve controls contraction of the heart and constriction of the lungs during respiration. The phrenic nerve controls the diaphragm and is critical to the breathing process. The laryngeal nerves control the functions of the vocal chords and epiglottis (the flap that prevents food and foreign objects from entering the larynx). And the thyroid and cricoid cartilages provide structure to the larynx to keep the airway open. A violent choke can quickly cause trauma to one or more of these structures, causing swelling and closure of the airway as well as nerve trauma that could affect breathing. Such trauma could easily lead to loss of consciousness and slow death by suffocation minutes after the initial attack.

Although it is commonly believed that pressure on the carotid arteries can directly deprive the brain of oxygenated blood and cause unconsciousness, in reality, reflex strangulation (a “blood choke”) results from over-stimulating the baroreceptors—sensors in the neck that monitor carotid blood pressure—and forcing the body to compensate by draining blood from the head. Despite the misconceptions about the mechanics of blood chokes, a violent choke attack can still produce unconsciousness very rapidly, leaving the victim helpless against subsequent attacks.

Lethal-Force Threshold

A choke is obviously an extremely dangerous attack, especially when that attack is perpetrated by a large, strong male against a physically weaker female. Although relative size and strength will always be factors in determining what is reasonable in a self-defense situation, grabbing a person by the throat is a very clear indication of an attacker’s intent to use lethal force. At that point, you are very justifiably in fear of death or grievous bodily injury—the legal trigger that justifies the use of lethal force on your part.
As logical as this may seem, many self-defense systems teach choke defenses that are extremely impractical, particularly for smaller-framed women. In many cases, these defenses do not consider the violent reality of a committed choke, nor do they logically address the attacker’s vulnerabilities based on available targets. Let’s be smarter than that and take a logical look at defending against this frightening attack.

Defense Mechanisms
What’s the best defense against a choke? Don’t let him choke you in the first place. As simple as this may sound, most women’s self-defense programs do not teach preemptive defenses and begin their teaching with the choke already in place. That mindset actually conditions you to allow an attacker to attack!

SET BOUNDARIES: Long before an attacker even gets close enough to touch you, you should be aware of what’s happening around you and prepared to avoid trouble before it happens. If you can’t avoid it, you should have the ability to set boundaries using verbal skills and strong physical posturing. This should include getting your hands up in front of you as both a physical gesture to “stop” and to prepare yourself to respond physically to any violation of your space.

COUNTER SLAP: This guard position forms the foundation of the basic preemptive defense against a choke. As the attacker reaches toward you, don’t wait for him to complete his grip on your neck. Instead, use your hand to slap his arms aside. If you are right-handed, slap from right to left with your right hand, making contact on the outside of his left forearm and driving his left arm into his right. As you do this, turn your body to your left. This adds power to the slap and helps get you out of the path of his grab.

GO FOR THE EYES: At this point, you are positioned to counterattack to two of the most vulnerable targets on his body: his eyes and his knees. From the ending position of your deflecting slap, thrust your arm straight forward and poke him in the eyes with your fingers. Stiffen your hand to stabilize it, extend all four fingers, keep your palm facing down and aim for the bridge of his nose. This will center your four fingers on his two eyes and maximize your chances of success. Don’t hesitate. Strike fast and hard.

KNEES AND KICKS: Even if you make only partial contact with one of his eyes, you will achieve some kind of significant reaction. You will also disrupt his vision at least momentarily, leaving him exposed for your follow-up. Raise your right knee high and point it to your left. Then stomp your heel straight into his closest knee with all your strength. The goal is to hyperextend his knee, destroying his ability to follow you and creating the opportunity for you to escape.
If kicking in this way feels too unnatural to you (it does require some practice), or if you are wearing a skirt or other restrictive clothing, use a soccer-style kick to the shin instead. This kick uses the inside-arch area of the foot and is just like kicking a soccer ball. Kick hard into the shin or shins and keep kicking until you’re sure you’ve compromised his mobility then seize the opportunity to escape.

Escape The Choke

Now that you know how to prevent being choked, what do you do if your attacker does manage to latch on? Under stress, the less you have to think about, the better off you are. Rather than using a different technique to defend yourself, stick with what you already know and use the parts that apply. In my approach to personal protection, I call this “have a plan and work your plan.”

If you are not quick enough to deflect your attacker’s grab and he manages to secure a front choke, first shrug your shoulders hard as if trying to raise your shoulders above your ears. This action is very instinctive and serves to protect the critical structures by tightening all the muscles of the neck. Without hesitation, extend and stiffen the fingers of your strong hand and drive them straight into your attacker’s eyes. Aim between his arms, not over them, and turn your shoulders 90 degrees to put the strong-side shoulder forward. This action—and the extension of your hand and fingers—will add significantly to your reach, allowing you to strike deeper and more effectively even if your attacker has longer arms. Turning your shoulders also orients your body to immediately chamber and deliver the stomping side-kick to the attacker’s knee.

Many self-defense systems teach techniques that rely on manipulating the attacker’s wrists or fingers or knocking his arms away with a wedging action of your forearms. These tactics simply don’t work against a larger and significantly stronger attacker, so don’t trust your life to them. Logically, if he is choking you, you know exactly where his hands are. You also know that, as long as he’s choking you, he can’t use his mitts to protect his eyes—incredibly vulnerable targets that only require a few ounces of pressure to cause a dramatic effect. That instinctive reaction includes letting go of whatever is in his hands and immediately bringing them up to his face to prevent further injury.

For women, realistic self-protection starts with understanding and accepting the disparity of size and strength between you and most of your potential attackers. Once you accept that, use it to fuel your commitment to viciously exploit an attacker’s most vulnerable targets to keep yourself safe and create the opportunity for a safe escape. Go big, and you will get to go home—safely.

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