Recognizing the Signs of Escalating Aggression.

In the case of active aggressive conflict, the warning signs are pretty clear. Odds are you are already posturing and yelling at each other, if not already throwing hands. However, there are times when someone in your vicinity is gearing up for an assault you aren’t aware of yet. Or maybe you are just talking with a stranger, and he has ulterior motives. The ability to recognize the warning signs of impending aggression gives you a head start on your personal defense plan.

Recognizing the Signs of Escalating Aggression

As all gamblers know, everyone has a “tell.” It is no different when it comes to aggressive conflict. And just like a gambler, the ability to read your opponent’s tell is the secret to success. When you know their plan, but they don’t know yours, you can put defensive measures into place before the first strike.

Whether you are professional personnel or just protecting yourself and your family, it’s important to pay attention to the cues. The aggressor is telling you volumes, even when he isn’t aware of it. They may even be exhibiting several tells simultaneously. Everyone is different and there are no set structures to how an aggressor will exhibit their plans.

Some of these signs will seem elementary to you, but for some, this might all be very new. As crime increases exponentially, many are finding themselves thrust into a world of violence they have never experienced. While many of these cues may be obvious to some, they are not so obvious to those new to violence. The ability to recognize these cues and what they mean can help you either leave before aggressive conflict or de-escalate before it b

Auditory Cues

Auditory cues can be a little difficult to pick up on. Although some may be overt, some will be very subtle. However, it is important to understand them because they can tend to be the start of the escalation. Not to mention, some aggressors are very calm and don’t present many signs of intended aggression and this may be all you get.

Rapid Breathing

When the body experiences an adrenaline dump a physiological change takes place. The sudden surge of adrenaline throughout the body causes the heart to quicken. As a result, it requires more oxygen to function, leading to an increase in breathing. While some aggressors can remain calm, and maintain a relaxed heart rate, not all can. Beware if someone is breathing rapidly, even though nothing exciting is happening around you.

Shaky Vocal Patterns During Speech

Another effect of the adrenaline dump is the rush of glucose into the bloodstream. This sudden rise in glucose levels can cause uncontrollable shaking, which also affects the diaphragm and larynx. A shaky voice is not necessarily a sign of fear. It may be a sign of an impending attack.

Deepened or Louder Speech

Yelling has always been an effective means of intimidation. As a protective measure, our bodies naturally react to loud noises. Aggressors use this to place their victim into a passive state or trigger a fear response.

Threatening Speech

Fear is a great motivator and violent aggressors love to use it to their advantage. For that reason, they often combine threatening statements with deepened and louder speech to elicit a response of fear. Oftentimes, when an aggressor uses really outrageous statements, they are nervous themselves and trying to intimidate you. A good example of this would be a statement like, “I’m going to rip your head off and shove it up your ass!”

Self-Approving Speech

Like threatening speech, self-approving speech is designed to build up the aggressor. They will typically use this kind of speech to distance themselves from guilt and place the blame on the victim. Good examples of self-approving speech would be, “What’s your problem?!” “What are you looking at?!” or “Don’t make me kick your ass!”

Facial Cues

Like auditory cues, facial cues range from overt to very subtle. But, as any gambler will tell you, facial cues can also give all the information you need to be successful. Additionally, for many, it is hard to hide signs of aggression and the face is often a dead giveaway.

1000-Yard Stare

The 1,000-yard stare is a sign that the aggressor has removed all emotional and moral implications of their attack. Many have described it as if the aggressor was looking right through them like they weren’t even there. They often have a glazed or empty stare, with a flat and emotionless expression. Likewise, their blink rate will often slow to 2 – 4 blinks per minute. If you see this in an aggressor, be prepared for a very sudden and violent outburst.

Target Acquisition

If you are speaking with someone and they are scanning your body, they may be looking for the best target. By doing so, they are attempting to identify either the weakest point or the point that will have maximum effect. By paying attention to this, you will not only be aware of an impending attack, but you will have an indication of where they plan to strike.

Avoids Eye Contact

Not everyone is good at eye contact, so it is not always indicative of impending assault. However, it could also be more nefarious in nature. It could mean he lacks respect for you or might even be intimidated by you. By avoiding eye contact he could be building himself up in his mind while avoiding your gaze, which could de-escalate him out of fear.

Intense/Focused Glare or Attention

Unlike avoiding eye contact, an intense or focused glare is a direct sign of aggression. By doing this, the aggressor is attempting to get into the victim’s head and psych them out. Likewise, this also allows the aggressor to psych themselves up.

Rapid Blinking

During a stressful event, like preparing to assault someone, people typically blink more rapidly. Generally, individuals blink approximately 20 blinks per minute. However, rapid blinking can be a sign of lying about intentions or working up to a violent event. This can also be a sign of an adrenaline dump.

Jaws Clench and Un-Clench

Often resulting from an adrenaline dump, an aggressor will experience pent-up aggression. As a result, they will clench and unclench their jaw. Likewise, many fighters clench their jaw to prevent the loss of teeth or biting their tongue during physical conflict.

Nostrils Flare

Flaring nostrils is often associated with the need for additional oxygen during an adrenaline dump. This is especially true while clenching the jaw and breathing through the nose alone.

Eyebrows Lower

Lowering or furrowing the eyebrows is a universal sign of anger or aggression. Typically, when an aggressor does this, it is an attempt to intimidate the victim. In addition, it is often used by the aggressor to build themselves up.

Red Face

While experiencing an adrenaline dump the body’s vascular system expands (vasodilation), delivering epinephrine throughout the body. While this happens, reddening of the face can occur, due to the increase in blood flow.

Physical Cues

Obviously, the most overt signs of aggression are physical cues. Although some aggressors can attack quickly, without any sign, if they are exhibiting physical cues, an attack is imminent. Additionally, sometimes physical cues are an attempt to gauge the victim’s awareness, as well as the ability and willingness to respond. Understanding such physical cues will help you properly prepare for an imminent attack.


Often during an adrenaline dump or high-stress situation, people tend to fidget. The high levels of adrenaline make it very hard to keep still. As such, an aggressor may move his hands in and out of his pockets, kick small rocks or slightly tremble.

Fists Clenching and Un-Clenching

Somewhat associated with fidgeting, the aggressor may clench and un-clench their fists. This is often used as a means of intimidation as well. However, even more dangerous is that it can be used to desensitize the victim to his fists clenching. As a result, the victim will not be aware of the final clench for action.

Jumpy or Bobbing

Also associated with the high energy dispensed during an adrenaline dump is acting jumpy or bobbing around. However, like professional fighters, it could also be a means of loosening himself up. Similarly, this could be used to desensitize the victim to exaggerated movement and render them unprepared for the actual attack.

Adopting an Aggressive Stance

Hardly worth mentioning, if he adopts an aggressive fight stance, he’s ready to launch an offensive. Prepare for defensive measures.


If the aggressor is circling you, even passively, he may be looking for a weak opening or attempting to flank you. As mentioned, this can be a passive circling while speaking with the victim. However, it is often associated with an aggressive stance or jumping/bobbing around.

Feigning Punches/Kicks

Often when an aggressor isn’t entirely sure of his plans, he will feign punches or kicks. This allows him to test your awareness of what is happening, and your response to this type of aggressive behavior. Likewise, it may be an attempt to desensitize you to fake punches and kicks, so you are unprepared when the real one comes in.


When an aggressor is preparing for his attack, he will often look around for witnesses or law enforcement. He is also checking to see if you have any backup nearby. When he is doing this, he is most likely ready to strike.

Holding a hand behind his back

Any time an aggressor is holding his hand behind his back or straight down his leg, with his hand behind his leg, keep an eye out. There is a very good chance that he is concealing a weapon and preparing to use it. Although you should always stay out of the arc of deployment, that is especially true in this case.

Removing Articles of Clothing

Removing articles of clothing, such as jackets, hats, glasses, t-shirts, etc. (I have even seen guys remove shoes) is common in aggressive escalation. For some it is a means of freeing up their movement. Some may use it for posturing. While others use it to prevent having their clothes used to tie them up.

Maintains Raised Hands

Talking with the hands or fidgeting with hair or face is a great way for an aggressor to keep his hands at the optimal rapid striking level. Likewise, keeping them high and moving them around prevents projecting an intended strike.


The knowledge of an impending attack increases the odds of a successful outcome dramatically. However, you might not always be able to catch the signs of aggression. Likewise, there might not be any signs of aggression. For this reason, it is important that you always maintain a strict reactionary gap between you and a potential aggressor.

Similarly, maintaining a heightened level of situational awareness will give you an edge in potential impending confrontation. In some instances, your awareness alone might put him off guard or make him rethink his plans. Criminals prefer easy victims.

Keep it real and stay safe.

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