The effectiveness of active and passive coping strategies was examined in a sample of 264 women infected with HIV. Coping was measured concurrent with, and 3 months prior to, measurement of physical symptoms and emotional distress. Two causal models were tested: one for active coping and one for passive coping. Active coping strategies examined included seeking social support, managing the illness, and spiritual activities. Avoidance was used as an indicator of passive coping. In both models, physical symptoms and emotional distress were positively and significantly related. The findings indicated that, whereas current avoidance coping was not related to emotional distress, current active coping was positively related to physical symptoms and negatively related to emotional distress. The immediate effects of active coping appeared to serve a protective function in that emotional distress decreased with greater use of active coping, even as physical symptoms increased. Avoidance coping had no such protective effect for emotional distress. In addition, the use of avoidance coping decreased and active coping increased as physical symptoms increased, suggesting that active coping is more likely to be used with increasing levels of physical symptoms. The findings suggest that interventions that support attempts to use active coping strategies as physical symptoms increase may be effective in promoting positive adaptation to HIV disease. © 1998 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.