Professor invites Alto tornado victims to take part in group therapy session at SFA

Professor invites Alto tornado victims to take part in group therapy session at SFA
Chainsaws and heavy equipment were out Monday in Alto as cleanup efforts continue after tornadoes hit the city. (Arthur Clayborn/KLTV Photojournalist)

NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - An assistant professor at Stephen F. Austin State University has invited victims of the recent tornadoes in Alto to participate in a group “processing” session designed to better help them heal.

The National Weather Service said tornadoes of EF-2 and EF-3 strength moved through Cherokee County in April, leaving a trail of damage along Highway 21 that left four people dead in at least three counties.

“We know that, especially in the first few hours of the traumatic event… if you have had traumatic experiences in your life, other psychiatric issues, it’s more likely to affect you than anybody else," said Dr. Jose Carbajal, Stephen F. Austin State University assistant professor of social work.

Carbajal said one-third of a person’s disposition to experiencing trauma can be attributed to genetics. The best approach to tackling mental stress and trauma, the doctor recommended, was to intervene as early as possible.

“The major part that I see with victims of natural disasters is hyper vigilance,” Carbajal explained. “You can’t change the weather. In others words, every time you hear the wind, every time you see something that’s similar to what you experienced in that moment, it will activate; it will make you feel like you’re experiencing the moment again.”

Carbajal explained hyper vigilance by giving an example concerning a solider returning to Texas after serving overseas in Iraq.

“They came back to Texas, and of course they’re not in Iraq, but the symptoms are still present. Anytime there’s a sound, anytime they see something, they get activated and feel like they’re in Iraq,” Carbajal explained. “The difference between someone who has processes trauma is that he or she will respond to the same stimulus, but notice I’m still in Texas, I’m not in Iraq, and they will redirect; they won’t go into trauma mode.”

One of the main indicators that trauma has not been properly processed is a lack of sleep. Rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep is when emotional memories are processed, Carbajal explained, so a victim’s deep and most “repairing” stage of sleep is directly affected by traumatic events.

“For those who have [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], for example, they hardly, in fact they never have REM sleep because of it," Carbajal said.

Depression and anxiety in individuals who previously did not show signs or symptoms are also clear indicators that trauma still exists.

EMDR therapy, the type of therapy Carbajal is offering for Alto tornado victims, is based on the adaptive information-processing model, which posits when a disturbing event occurs, it can be encoded in the brain with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings and body sensations. EMDR therapy often decreases the emotional activation that develops following a traumatic event.

The processing session will take place from 10 a.m. to noon Friday, May 17, on the SFA campus in the Baker Pattillo Student Center Multimedia Room. Carbajal is an approved consultant in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatment and is an EMDR certified therapist.

The event is free. To RSVP, or for more information, contact Carbajal at carbajalji@sfasu.edu.

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