These 'Distress Signals' May Help You Get Out of an Unsafe Situation

Verywell Health / Jessica Olah

Key Takeaways

  • A hand gesture to indicate domestic violence went viral when a teen used it to escape a kidnapping situation
  • Now people are sharing the signal online
  • Experts encourage asking for help in the ways available to you, they question whether a universal signal could help or harm victims.

A TikTok hand signal for distress made headlines this month after a teen used it to escape a kidnap. The teenager used the “Signal For Help” hand gesture, tucking her thumb into her palm and then closing her fingers around it. She was able to alert a driver who recognized the signal and called 911.

This distress signal was created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation to support people at risk of abuse or violence during the pandemic.

hand signal closeup

Verywell Health / Jessica Olah

Some encourage sharing the knowledge of this signal so that more people can use it to get out of unsafe situations. But others are hesitant to promote the gesture, saying that too much exposure could render the signal ineffective.

“It's raising awareness,” ​​Kathleen Bogle, PhD, associate professor in sociology and criminal justice at LaSalle University, told Verywell. “But we do need to realize that there are more nuanced situations… and the universal signals for 'rescue me' might not work for those scenarios.”

The distress signal wasn’t intended to be used as a signal to call police. It signifies “reach out to me safely” instead of calling the authorities right away, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

While someone may want you to call the authorities, you should let them take the lead rather than assume this is what they need, according to the foundation. However, if a person is in immediate danger, the foundation recommends dialing 911.

The discrete nature of the gesture, and the way it can be performed without a digital trace, make it helpful in domestic violence situations, where a person may be closely watched or monitored by an abuser. The signal might not work, however, if it becomes so widely known that abusers become aware of it.

Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury for women in the United States. Research has shown an increase in domestic violence in places including in Alabama, Oregon, Texas and New York City during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

For Some Women, Secrecy is Safety

Francesca Knoll, an undergrad student studying criminal justice and psychology at LaSalle University, said that as a woman, safety is often contingent on secrecy.

“Growing up, it was a safety precaution to always have, as a young woman, a sense of secrecy,” Knoll told Verywell. “If whoever is coming onto you or being creepy catches on, they'll become more aggressive. So you have to be secretive about it to avoid a more violent situation.”

Knoll and her friends sometimes choose a code word like “peanut butter” or “coconut squash” before going on dates with people they met on Tinder. While she has never sent or received a text with one of the words, she said knowing that she has that option gives her a sense of safety.

Knoll said she feels conflicted about whether it’s more helpful to popularize distress signals so people have tools to ask for help, or hide them so that dangerous people don’t catch on.

“It’s a difficult question, and I've asked it myself multiple times,” Knoll said. “Yes, more people should know about it. But if it becomes so well known that perpetrators are going to know about it, that's another thing that you have to deal with. So then do we change the code words again? Do we change this hand signal again?”

“It’s a double edged sword,” she added.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation acknowledges that people may not always feel safe enough to use the signal as it becomes known by the public. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone facing abuse,” the foundation states. “It is important that people reach out for support if and when they feel ready, and they should do it in the ways that feel safest for them. People supporting them should be ready to help without judgement, and they should follow the lead of the person who needs help.”

Are There Other Distress Signals?

The “Signal for Help” isn’t the only discreet way to alert others that you’re in danger.

One example is a coded drink called an “angel shot,” which people can order at certain bars to signal that they are uncomfortable or unsafe. According to the Tampa Bay Times, if you order an angel shot “neat,” the bartender should escort you to your car. If it’s an angel shot “with ice,” the bartender should call a ride, like an Uber or Taxi. And if it’s “with lime,” it means the bartender should call the police.

Similar to the hand signal, this trick probably works best if your suitor hasn’t heard of it before, Bogle said.

She encourages young people to create their own signals or code words—like Knoll’s use of “peanut butter” over text—within their friend groups, so that they can have the safety of a secret sign without the risk of having too many people know about it.

Digital tracking services can also help to check in on friends and make sure they are safe. Knoll’s friend group sometimes tracks each other’s locations through the Find My app on iPhone if a friend is meeting up with a stranger.

But because not everyone in distress can plan ahead with location-tracking or signal-making, it can be a good idea for people to familiarize themselves with more natural signs of distress too, Bogle said. This can be especially important to watch out for people if they’ve had too much to drink, she added.

“We want to train people how to look out for the signs that someone is in distress even if they're not signaling,” Bogle added.

Knoll said when she’s at a bar with friends, body signals like direct eye contact can alert the group that someone is uncomfortable. When they pick up on the signal, they’d walk over to pull the friend away from the situation.

“Women have informally done this for a long time, and tried to rescue each other out of being cornered by someone you don't want to talk to, and things like that,” Bogle said. “Raising more awareness of how to do this, or how important it is to take care of each other.”

What This Means For You

If you are in an unsafe situation and you are afraid to tell the other person, you may want to use a secret signal to ask for help. The Canadian Women’s Foundation suggests a hand gesture where you curl your thumb into your palm and fold your fingers over it to indicate that you're in danger. You can also develop a more secretive signal to use with your friends, or a code word to use over text.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The Clark County Prosecutor's Office. Fast Facts on Domestic Violence. Copyright 2021.

  2. Boserup B, McKenney M, Elkbuli A. Alarming trends in US domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Am J Emerg Med. 2020;38(12):2753-2755. doi:10.1016/j.ajem.2020.04.077

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.