The role of optimism and coping in immune and neuroendocrine responses and physical health in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

First Committee Member

Gail Ironson - Committee Chair


The relations between dispositional optimism and coping strategy and psychological, physiological, and subjective physical health outcomes were examined in a sample of 180 men and women following a major natural disaster. A substantial impact by hurricane-related stress on participants' distress levels, subjective physical health, and coping behaviors was found. Avoidant coping significantly predicted participants' overall distress, anxiety, depression, PTSD symptoms, and cognitive intrusions, as well as poorer sleep and more physical symptoms concurrently. Active coping was a significant concurrent predictor of intrusive thoughts only. Optimism was significantly associated with less distress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms, and with better subjective physical health. Optimism was also a significant concurrent predictor of avoidant coping, but not of active coping.The main hypothesis of this research was that coping would mediate the relationship between optimism and well-being concurrently. Some evidence consistent with this hypothesis was found. Specifically, avoidant coping mediated the relationships between optimism and overall distress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms concurrently. Stronger evidence, however, suggested that the various measures of psychological distress independently mediated the relationship between optimism and avoidant coping concurrently. This finding suggests that participants' high levels of distress may have promoted their use of avoidant coping behaviors.The findings relating coping and optimism to urinary stress hormones and immune status were sparse and relatively weak. Avoidant coping was significantly related to higher CD8 cell numbers controlling for ethnicity. Optimism was significantly related to greater percentages of lymphocytes controlling for ethnicity and tobacco use and to higher urinary free-cortisol levels, though this relation was mediated by participants' PTSD symptoms. Lastly, hurricane stress was significantly related, though indirectly through sleep disturbances, to lower natural killer cell cytotoxicity.The present findings are consistent with the existing literature indicating that optimism confers benefits on psychological and subjective physical well-being in persons confronting a stressful situation. In addition, this work demonstrates the role of coping in the adjustment of disaster victims and the importance of examining possible mediators of the relation between disaster-related stress and both psychological and subjective physical health outcomes.


Health Sciences, Mental Health; Psychology, Clinical; Psychology, Personality; Psychology, Physiological

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