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What is Gray Area Drinking? How to Recognize the Signs.

The term “gray area drinking” is used in the context of someone who drinks more than they should but is not considered to be an alcoholic.

It can also be used when someone has a pattern of heavy drinking with occasional periods of abstinence. When someone cannot recall what happened during one night but they know that their behavior was different than usual, this might be an indication that they drank too much.

Signs of Gray Area Drinking

A person who drinks in a less than responsible way, but not enough to be considered an alcoholic.

Signs that you are a gray area drinker:

  • You often drink alcohol to manage emotions like stress, anger, or disappointment
  • Engaging in risky drinking behaviors such as blackouts, passing out from alcohol consumption, or getting into fights while intoxicated
  • Frequently experiencing drinking-related guilt or shame
  • Drinking is a part of every social activity you participate in

A person who is a gray area drinker may find it difficult to stop consuming alcohol if they are experiencing negative consequences from their drinking. They may also feel like they can handle their drinking and don’t need help.

It varies from person to person. Someone might be a social drinker, but struggle to cut themself off and ends up binge drinking.

empty wine glasses with party goers engaging in gray area drinking in the background
What is gray area drinking?

What is the gray area drinking spectrum?

The gray area drinking spectrum is where you drink, but not enough to qualify as an alcoholic. It is hard to define the exact moment when you go from casual drinker 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 is someone who has a physical addiction to alcohol 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 very important to quickly recognize alcohol use disorder (something that does require a medical diagnosis). This way, you can get the person (or yourself) proper treatment to avoid further harmful consequences.

The signs of someone who has alcohol use disorder might be:

  • Mood swings
  • Withdrawal from family
  • Poor work performance and increased risk-taking behaviors
  • Increased drinking or unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop drinking

Intervening with someone who is a gray area drinker can be more complicated because, well, it’s a gray area. 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? 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 are used to help people determine how much alcohol to consume safely.

According to these guidelines, men should not consume more than 14 drinks in a week, 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 by 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 do to start tackling 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 drinking and control your alcohol intake like a “normal drinker”.

woman staring at beer glass wondering if she is a gray area drinker
Signs of Gray Area Drinking

For instance, 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 a bad decision? 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 that you can 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.

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” as a way of downplaying their level of 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 a physical dependence on alcohol. Chances are you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that your occasional heavy alcohol consumption is 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 to you or you don’t feel like you connect with those groups, there are so many wonderful online communities that can offer your camaraderie and information.

Counseling is another solid option. Speaking with a therapist might help you unpack something you’re trying to cover with those bottles of wine.

Access should not be a barrier to help.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist who has the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.

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 actually impacting their lives in significant ways.

Life without alcohol is rich and fulfilling. So is life with less alcohol. By taking the first steps towards recognizing gray area drinking and taking a hard look at the impact it has on your life, you can start making real change.

glass of beer in black and white behind title "Are you a gray area drinker?"

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