When MMA fighter-turned social activist Justin Wren was bullied by his classmates, he struggled to find a reason for living. He eventually found that wrestling and mixed martial arts gave him an outlet for his frustrations, but something was still missing. In the first episode of a series with the “Fight for the Forgotten” author, Justin describes what happened when he made the shift from fighting people to fighting FOR people.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome, everyone. We have a special treat for you. This week we have champion Justin Wren, who's been a wrestler, a mixed martial artist, but really more a social activist, and his organization, his book, his website, his fight for the forgotten. I'm so honored to have you here on The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast because, you know, what we believe here is you're at war for the health of your brain. Everywhere you go, someone's trying to give you bad food or put a toxic thought in your head. You have to be armed, prepared, and aware. Tell us your story because it's really interesting. When you were young, you were actually bullied.
Justin Wren: Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Dr. Amen for having me on the show. Personally, I'm a fan of the Brain Warrior Podcast. I've watched at least 20 episodes of you and Tana and you guys are so great, and so I'm so excited to be here, to be a patient. Yeah, as a fighter... or growing up, I did get very heavily bullied and it was a daily fight and that was the biggest fight I've had in my life was against depression and suicidal ideation and even a suicide attempt. And sitting at the lunch table by myself, were being ridiculed, publicly shamed, very methodically planned out bullying moments in front of the entire school or having the back of my head hit with a football helmet and my clothes thrown out into the gym with the girl's volleyball team and after I'm showering. And different things like that made me feel worthless. I was told in this bullying moment in front of the school, "You're worthless and you should just kill yourself." And so at 13 years old you believe the things people say about you. And yeah, I felt worthless. I didn't feel good enough, and I contemplated and seriously considered and tried to kill myself.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Do you have any sense why they picked on you?
Justin Wren: I think I was an easier target. I didn't speak up for myself. I looked different. I was heavy set. I was probably the last kid in the US with a chili bowl haircut and pimples on my face. Just different things, but I think it was because I didn't, not necessarily fight back, but I couldn't stand up for myself and I was just an easy target.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And is that part of why you got into wrestling?
Justin Wren: Yes, it was. Absolutely, to me wrestling is a martial art and when I found the UFC mixed martial arts and the MMA fighters, they were martial artists, I fell in love with the chess match of it, the different styles of Olympics, of wrestling, two different styles and also our NCAA style or American style of wrestling and jiu-jitsu and kickboxing and boxing. And, when they combine all those, it's just unlike any other sport. To me it's like a human chess match. And, but I was first originally drawn to it because I'm like, "Oh these guys don't get bullied". And so that's why I entered. And that's probably most MMA fighters, seven, eight, nine out of ten I'm just guessing there, but most of us have been bullied. We weren't the bully and we found martial arts through that.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So there's a concept I write about in my book, Feel Better Fast And Make It Last. And that is posttraumatic growth. And yes, when you're bullied, often the trauma we have as children. It shapes a lot of our thoughts about ourselves. It could shape our relationships, but when people take the trauma and for whatever reason you didn't kill yourself and then you turn it into something productive like becoming a champion wrestler that is called posttraumatic growth. And when did you find out you were good at wrestling?
Justin Wren: I definitely wasn't in the first year, year and a half, cause I won one match by one point and I was pretty terrible, but I had two Olympic gold medalist that just, and I had a great mom I think, and you've met her and she believed in me and kept pushing me to get better. And so it just kind of clicked one day, I went in there from the bullying moment, probably just thinking about this, you've spurred something, but I was very hesitant and timid on the wrestling mats. And so I'd telegraph everything that I would do before I did it and so the guys knew how to defend it right away and I would just get dominated. I mean guys would laugh as they were pinning me or tell me what they were going to do and then do it because, I went from an easy target to then an easy match to where I was the Texas kid and that's not a very renowned wrestling state. But then I started to get confidence once I saw other people believing in me and telling me I could do it. And they told me to visualize and to have imagery in my head of being a champion. And so the coach has told me, write down state champion and put that somewhere you can see it. So I put it above...
Dr. Daniel Amen: I'd say you were visualizing. And it's a good point because whenever almost anyone starts something new, they suck at it, because you don't know how to do it, right? But over time with the right coaches, and that's what we try to do on the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. Try to coach you over time, nobody just knows. And so as you got better, tell us a little bit about the trajectory of your career.
Justin Wren: Well, for me it was a real outlet. It was something I could pour myself into and it was a passion and a purpose. And now that I share with kids that are being bullied, I say you got to find that whether it's art or music or you got to find something to focus on that's a positive thing in your life. And see I poured myself into wrestling, became a national champion in that state champion ten times, five times all American two time national champion. Went and lived at the Olympic Training Center.
Dr. Daniel Amen: I'll say that again. State champion...
Justin Wren: Ten times, five time all American and a two time national champion. And from there, lived at the Olympic Training Center, was competing all around the country and in the world. I'd kick boxed in Amsterdam, wrestled in Moscow, I came back and I fought, even at the main event at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, I was the youngest in the UFC on the Ultimate Fighter TV show. And yeah, I was great at what I did, but what I've learned through this life is it's one thing to fight for people in a competition and it's something completely different and more fulfilling and so much more contentment when you fight for people. And so that's my real mission in life is to fight for people.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And how did that happen?
Justin Wren: I would say that fighting didn't fulfill me like I thought it would. Being a child, It was my childhood dream to be a fighter. And I did that and I became pretty good at it and professional and, I would get my hand raised and sometimes I would literally think in the cage "Is this all? Is this it?". And it didn't fulfill me like I thought it would. And so I became a depressed, drunk drug addict, I would say. And I have messed up a lot in my life and so what brings me peace or joy or fulfills my life is to live with a purpose, with passion, and to make progress in my life and in other people's lives. And so that traumatic growth, I guess I'm taking that tragedy to triumph or to see the things that I've struggled with and the downfalls I've had in defeats to come back and help others through my own personal experiences.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And when did the drugs start?
Justin Wren: Seventeen, after I won my first, my high school national championship. I had never drank alcohol or anything before then and there was never alcohol in the home and I went to a Catholic school and there was just a lot of parties and after I won, everyone wanted to celebrate me. So I drank for the first time then.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Isn't that interesting how we celebrate with things that make us act stupid?
Justin Wren: Yeah, absolutely.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Never really got the fun in it because when I was sixteen I got drunk on a six pack of Michelob and half a bottle of champagne. I was sick for three days, my dad owns grocery stores, he made me work in the liquor department. Every bottle of wine just gave me a big headache. And I'm like, and I acted like an ass, why is this fun? I didn't really get why it was fun, right?
Justin Wren: No, and for me it competition. It became after that moment, win or lose was an excuse to use. So to celebrate or to completely wipe away all the effort. And when you're living at the Olympic Training Center or when you're a professional MMA fighter even becomes more, you're training two or three times a day, six days a week in your training, in numerous different sports plus your strength and conditioning. And so after six months dedicating yourself to it, if you lose, it's hard to, I guess I probably wasn't a good loser and I took it very personally and I would shake the guy's hand. I congratulate him, his team and be OK in front of everybody. But internally I would internalize it and it would make me feel worthless and not good enough. And I'd hear that same...
Dr. Daniel Amen: So no one in your training, even your Olympic training, is anybody training your mind?
Justin Wren: Yeah, we'd have a sports psychologist.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And do they teach you how to deal with loss? How to deal...
Justin Wren: They would try to and I think as a high performer guys, that you see it in a lot of Olympic champions and world champions and fighting. You just don't handle loss as well and you need to, you need to learn how to, and that was a struggle for me, win or lose, it was an excuse to use because my identity was wrapped in it. Now it's not. I had to take five years off after a moment for me, a life transformation and change of deciding I don't want to live this way anymore. And for me it was also personally faith, not pushing that on anyone else. But yeah, after that moment I detached from that identity and said I'm not just this, there's a lot more to me and...
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well I want to talk about that transition. When we come back, we're going to be with Justin Wren. If there's one thing you learned from this podcast posted on any of your social media sites, hashtag Brain Warrior's Way Podcast, leave us a review, a comment, a question on BrainWarriorsWayPodcast.com. We'll enter you into raffle to win one of Tana's cookbooks. I am so excited you can learn more about Justin at Fight For The Forgotten. You also have a book of the same name and you're going to be blown away when you hear the stories coming up. Stay with us.
Justin Wren: Thank you.
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