The term “gray area drinking” describes someone who drinks more than they should but is not considered an alcoholic.
A lot of people are gray area drinkers. That means a lot of people flirt with the boundaries between moderate and heavy drinking and problem drinking.
But how do you know if that’s you?
I’ll explore common signs of gray area drinking and steps you can take to get a clearer picture of your drinking and whether it is a problem. Let’s dive in!
7 Signs of Gray Area Drinking
If you’re wondering whether or not you are a gray area drinker, here are some common signs. Are any of these familiar?
1. You quietly fear the damage alcohol does to your body and brain.
It’s beginning to feel like alcohol harms your overall quality of life and physical health.
Honestly, it’s becoming difficult to balance maintaining a healthy lifestyle and drinking.
There are times after a night of drinking, you still get your workout in and eat a balanced diet, but you still feel sluggish throughout the rest of the day.
You suffer through wasted mornings, weekends, and evenings on other days. It makes you feel like you’re falling apart.
Your friends and family don’t usually know about these days. They don’t see how you feel inside.
Sometimes you don’t feel sharp. Your mental health frequently dips.
Something just feels off.
You suspect it’s connected to drinking, but you don’t talk about it with anyone because that feels scary or like an overreaction.
So you wrestle with it in silence.
2. You go back and forth between wanting to stop drinking and deciding that you’re overthinking and need to just “live a little.”
Alcohol is your reward at the end of the day. It’s how you have fun, relax, unwind, connect and have sex.
Yet, you’ve lost track of how many times you’ve woken up the next morning saying, “I can’t keep drinking like this…”
Sometimes you can admit that drinking harms your health, relationships, work, family life, finances, etc. But society and peer pressure keep pulling you towards that drink.
So, what do we do about it?
We know there is a gray area where some people enjoy alcohol without abusing it. They limit themselves to one glass of wine or beer per week, or maybe even less.
But, the problem is that most people think they can handle a couple of drinks here and there.
Then, they wake up the next day feeling awful. (In fact, that’s often the case with you.)
You would very much like to be the person who can limit themself or just have a glass of wine and be done with it, but it’s too hard. You go overboard too much. You try, but it’s not working out.
So, you try to ignore that still small voice telling you to stop drinking and decide that you’re overthinking and need just to live a little.
The back and forth takes up way too much real estate in your brain. You wish you didn’t think about it as much as you do.
3. You often drink alcohol to manage emotions like stress, anger, or disappointment.
You’ve reached a point in your life where your default coping mechanism for almost every uncomfortable emotion is alcohol.
Happy hour is your preferred remedy if you’ve had a hard day at work. Got into an argument with your partner? Drinks with friends. Didn’t get that job you wanted? Have a drink.
There are many healthy ways to deal with these same situations, but none of them appeal to you.
You prefer alcohol.
Maybe you have convinced yourself that it works the best, or perhaps it is your way to find the “fun” in a bad situation.
Regardless, you catch yourself leaning on alcohol in response to life’s ups and downs.
You still keep it social – drinking with friends at home or at the bar. But it’s becoming more commonplace.
4. Engaging in risky drinking behaviors while intoxicated.
You don’t drink all the time, but it frequently gets out of control when you do. We’re talking blackouts, passing out, getting into fights, and other risky behavior.
On multiple occasions, you have consumed alcohol to the point where you do things you instantly regret the next day, like hooking up with strangers, cheating on a partner, or starting fights with loved ones.
You’ve had more than a few close calls and maybe even landed in the ER for alcohol poisoning or had a near-miss DUI experience.
Friends sometimes describe these incidents as scary.
Related Post: Why Does Alcohol Change Your Personality?
5. Frequently experiencing alcohol-related guilt and shame.
This is related to a few points I already mentioned, but it’s worth stating again.
If you frequently wake up after a night of drinking thinking, “I am never going to drink again,” you might be a gray area drinker.
Sometimes we make light of this moment.
Anyone who has had a rough night drinking has woken up and said something similar.
When you teeter between gray area drinking and problem drinking, you notice that you wake up and say this regularly.
You feel guilty because you want to enjoy life like everyone else. But you secretly wish you could stop worrying about it. Should you take a break from alcohol?
The thought crosses your mind often.
You wake up in the middle of the night remembering what happened the previous evening, and you feel remorseful and ashamed. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re doing anymore.
6. Drinking is a part of every social activity you participate in.
Another sign of gray area drinking is that every social activity in your life involves alcohol.
Have a playdate at your house? There is wine for you and the other parents. Lunch with friends? Alcohol. Hosting a cookout or game night? You are drinking.
You struggle to name the last social thing you did that didn’t involve alcoholic beverages.
Sometimes you base whether you will participate in something on the access to alcohol you will have at the event.
Not having the option to drink registers as “boring” to you.
7. Your “gut” tells you something is off about your drinking.
Sometimes your intuition is your best guide. You don’t know if you fit any classic definitions of anything.
What you do know is you’re doing a lot of questioning, and something tells you it’s time to change.
Does that make you a gray area drinker or a problem drinker? You don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.
All you know is that you feel bad about alcohol’s role in your life, and you need to hear someone say that it’s okay, that they understand and have been there, too.
If you relate to any of these, you probably think about the consequences of alcohol use more than you admit.
It’s possible you are sitting in the precarious space between” gray area drinking” and a more serious problem.
Let’s explore some of those parameters more thoroughly.
What is the gray area drinking spectrum?
The gray area drinking spectrum is where you drink a lot but not enough to qualify as an alcoholic.
It is hard to define the exact moment you go from casual to heavy drinker.
Different people can be at different stages of the continuum depending on their tolerance levels, how often they drink, and what they are drinking.
But it is possible for someone at the early stages of the spectrum to gradually slide into alcoholism if they continue on this path.
That’s why it’s important to understand how alcohol affects your body, why it is important to have a conversation with your doctor about your drinking habits, and how dangerous alcoholism can be for you and your family.
What is the difference between alcoholism and gray area drinking?
An alcoholic has a physical alcohol addiction and cannot control their consumption. A gray area drinker may not be physically addicted to alcohol, but they drink more than is recommended for their age and gender.
It is important to quickly recognize alcohol use disorder (something that requires a medical diagnosis). This way, you can get the person (or yourself) proper treatment to avoid further harmful consequences.
Signs of someone who has alcohol use disorder include:
- Mood swings
- Withdrawal from family
- Poor work performance and increased risk-taking behaviors
- Increased drinking or unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop drinking
- Spending more time getting alcohol or recovering from alcohol use (ex. nursing hangovers)
- Continuing to drink alcohol despite negative impacts on your physical health and relationships with others
- Giving up on or reducing social activities or hobbies to drink more
- Developing an alcohol tolerance
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms and drinking to avoid these symptoms
Intervening with someone who is a gray area drinker can be more complicated because it’s a gray area.
Best piece of advice? Focus on the core issue – a negative relationship with alcohol.
How you can support that person is going to vary based on any number of factors.
Are they receptive to your feedback? Have they expressed concern over their drinking in the past? What kind of relationship do you have with them?
We’ll get into ways to support them (or get support) later. But first, let’s try to define “normal” or moderate drinking.
What constitutes moderate drinking?
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has a set of low-risk drinking guidelines that help people determine how much alcohol to consume safely.
According to these guidelines, men should not consume more than 14 drinks weekly, while women should not drink more than 7 in a week.
For some, that number seems surprisingly low. Consumption consistently above these numbers is an entry point to gray area drinking.
Of course, it’s not just about the numbers. The behavior and impact of drinking are just as important.
Some people may experience negative consequences of having a couple of glasses of wine throughout the week. Others can consume that much and experience no negative consequences.
Everyone is different.
What to do if you think you might be a gray area drinker
If you think you have a gray area drinking problem, there are a few things that you can tackle the problem.
The first thing is to establish what your drinking is like.
Take some time to note your drinking patterns in a journal.
- How many drinks per week do you consume?
- What type of drinking do you typically do?
- Is it social drinking?
- Occasional binge drinking?
Be honest with yourself about your relationship with alcohol, and then make a plan.
Ultimately, you need to learn whether you can moderate and control your alcohol intake like a “normal drinker.”
How to test your drinking limits:
If you want to drink on weekends, then define “healthy” limits for yourself.
What is too much for you? Does the third glass of wine guarantee a hangover or bad behavior? If so, then stop at two drinks.
Note how that goes.
Was it easy? Difficult?
Observe your drinking closely. See where you need to cut back or substitute alcohol options. Can you do it? Has it made a difference?
Finally, if this method doesn’t work out for you, there are other ways to tackle your problem, such as talking with friends and family members about your drinking habits.
Although, in the spirit of transparency, if this does prove too difficult, there is a good chance you do not have control of your drinking and need to stop, even temporarily.
If you want to test your alcohol consumption, this link will take you to an AUDIT quiz (Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test).
It is not an official medical diagnosis and is just for education purposes. However, you may find useful insight there.Go To AUDIT Quiz
Getting support for gray area drinking
You do not have to wait until you’re engaging in rock bottom drinking to take your drinking concerns seriously.
Many people will use the famed “rock bottom” to downplay their drinking, which in turn gives them permission to continue problematic drinking.
If something feels “off” about your level of alcohol consumption, there is a good chance your gut is telling you it’s time to re-examine your relationship with alcohol.
There is more to consider than whether or not you have physical alcohol dependence. Chances are you don’t.
But that doesn’t mean your occasional heavy drinking days are not without health risks.
If you’re having trouble understanding your issues with alcohol, don’t be afraid to reach out. You can try sitting on some recovery group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous, Refuge Recovery, etc.
If that feels wrong or you don’t feel like you connect with those groups, many wonderful online communities can offer your camaraderie and information.
Counseling is another great option. Speaking with a therapist might help you unpack something you’re trying to cover with those bottles of wine.
Final Thoughts on Gray Area Drinking
So many of us fall into this ill-defined, fluid category of gray area drinking. We can become conditioned to believe that unless we meet the standard definition of an alcoholic, we’re doing fine.
But for many people, gray area drinking is not fine and impacts their lives significantly.
Life without alcohol is rich and fulfilling. So is life with less alcohol.
By taking the first steps toward recognizing gray area drinking and taking a hard look at its impact on your life, you can start making real change.