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Gray Area Drinking: Signs & Risks

Alcohol is legal and widely used for socializing, relaxing, and celebrating. Alcohol’s effects vary from person to person, and while it is socially acceptable to drink for a variety of reasons, it can also lead to addiction. This is known as an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Because alcohol consumption is so prevalent in American society, it isn’t always easy to distinguish between acceptable drinking and having an addiction. Some people fall in between casual drinking and an AUD. This is known as gray area drinking, and for many, it is problematic.

What Is Gray Area Drinking?

Gray area drinking is when someone has a drinking problem—such as drinking excessively or turning to alcohol to cope with life’s stresses—but does not have a severe AUD.

As the term suggests, gray area drinking can be hard to define, but the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting your alcohol intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men, or 1 drink or less in a day for women.1

In contrast, an alcohol use disorder is a medical condition associated with the inability to stop using alcohol despite negative consequences on your health, social life, or work life.2 Someone with an alcohol use disorder may:2

  • Be unable to stop drinking.
  • Need more alcohol to feel its effects.
  • Continue to drink despite the problems it causes.
  • Constantly think about your next drink.

While gray area drinking is not an official diagnosis, any level of alcohol consumption that impacts your health, personal life, or the health of those around you is a sign that you may have a drinking problem.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2 drinks or less a day for men and 1 drink or less a day for women is considered drinking in moderation.3 Anything more than this, but less severe than an AUD can fall into the gray area drinking category.

Alcohol can impact relationships, work, school, and a person’s mental health, and gray area drinkers are no exception; their problems just may not be as noticeable as someone’s who has hit “rock bottom.” Drinking falls on a spectrum, and it can be difficult to discern whether your drinking is a problem. If you suspect drinking alcohol is a problem for you, it probably is.

Gray area drinking increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people turned to alcohol to cope. Studies show that pandemic-induced stress and social isolation led to an increase in heavy drinking in all adults in the U.S., particularly women.4 In March 2020, alcohol sales rose by 54%, and online sales of alcohol increased by 477% by the end of April, compared to the previous year.5

Signs of Gray Area Drinking

Gray area drinking can be hard to define and recognize, particularly because drinking alcohol at social events, on special dates, and even to unwind at home is viewed as acceptable and normal within our society. While more difficult to distinguish, it is important to be able to recognize the warning signs of gray area drinking, so that you can get yourself or a loved one help before serious problems arise.

Some potential signs of gray area drinking can include:6

  • Silently worrying about your drinking.
  • Being able to stop drinking, but it’s hard to stop for long.
  • Wavering back and forth between thinking you drink too much, to telling yourself you ‘deserve’ a drink to relax, unwind, or celebrate.
  • Spending time during the day thinking about your next drink.
  • Finding it hard to stop because your drinking doesn’t seem problematic to the people around you.

If you find that you related to the warning signs of gray drinking above, you may want to consider getting help. If you are still not sure if you’re a gray area drinker, you can also take this self-assessment alcohol quiz to learn more about your drinking habits.

Risks of Gray Area Drinking

Although gray area drinking is not a diagnosable disorder and may not have noticeable harms like a severe AUD, it can still become problematic. In fact, anyone who drinks alcohol is at risk, particularly those who are going through periods of chronic stress or social isolation.

The dangers of gray area drinking can include:

  • A negative impact on your work/career.
  • A negative impact on your relationships and family life.
  • Health problems: harmful alcohol use is associated with more than 200 diseases and injury conditions.7
  • Trouble with the law, such as driving under the influence.
  • Mental health problems connected to alcohol use
  • Safety concerns: alcohol is a factor in 30% of suicides, 40% of auto accidents, 50% of drownings and homicides, and 60% of falls leading to injury.8

Along with these dangers of gray drinking, there is also the potential that this level of drinking could develop into a more severe alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use can be progressive and what may start as a minor issue could develop into a serious drinking problem that results in more extreme dangers and harm.

Gray Area Drinker FAQs

Getting Help for Gray Area Drinking

While gray area drinkers may not have a relationship with alcohol that is as troubling as a severe alcohol use disorder, they may still need help.

If you suspect you are a gray area drinker, try taking a break from alcohol for a while. Dry January, for example, is a good time to give up alcohol. You may notice that you get better sleep, feel better, and realize just how much alcohol was impacting your life.

Additionally, there are resources that you can find that are provided by Jolene Park. Park is a functional nutritionist and health coach who specializes in gray area drinking. Having previously struggled with alcohol, Park aims to help people rewire, replenish, and repair their nervous system from alcohol damage once they stop drinking.9 She created the NOURISH method, which is a training program for coaches and healthcare professionals who are working with gray area drinkers to effectively provide them with resources. The program, which focuses on satisfying cravings, is also valuable for those who are further along in their recovery journey, 12-18 months if not more.9 This method is believed to be helpful for gray area drinkers as they work on their sobriety.

If you struggle to quit or find your drinking getting worse, you may need to get professional alcohol addiction treatment. While your drinking may not seem that problematic right now, it’s better to get help before the alcohol has a deeper impact on your overall health and wellbeing. Treatment can include a wide range of services and levels of care to help people with AUDs of varying degrees of severity. Most treatment centers will also tailor treatment to meet your unique needs. Stop waiting, and take the first step to getting sober today.