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Gray Area Drinking Explained

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Gray area drinking refers to a potentially dangerous pattern of alcohol consumption. You are not considered to have an alcohol problem yet—but might be on your way to developing one. This includes alcoholism, the colloquial term for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

If you continue gray area drinking, it can become problematic. The more (and more often) you drink, the more likely you will develop an alcohol addiction.

Understanding more about gray area drinking can help you stop or even prevent it.

Gray area drinking refers to a pattern of alcohol use that is borderline problematic. These types of drinkers can cut back on alcohol but choose to keep drinking. In some cases, gray area drinkers are on the verge of developing an AUD.

3 Signs You’re a Gray Area Drinker

Here are three signs you could be drinking in the gray area:

1. You drink alone often

If you drink alone often, it could be a red flag for an alcohol problem. This is especially true if you make excuses for or lie about drinking alone.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy drinking differently for men and women. For men, it means having more than four drinks in a day or 14 in a week. For women, it’s three and seven, respectively.3

If you’re regularly drinking more than a standard drink in one sitting, it could also be a problem. Any drink containing 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol is considered one standard drink.6

2. You drink as a form of escapism

Drinking alcohol as a coping mechanism can be dangerous. Drinking to avoid feelings of anxiety or depression is problematic and can lead to adverse health effects.

The more you rely on alcohol to cope with mental health issues, the worse those issues become. It is necessary to treat anxiety, depression, and other disorders with the help of a healthcare professional.

3. You require more alcohol to achieve the same effects

The more alcohol you consume, the more your body becomes used to it. This can be dangerous because you eventually need to drink more alcohol to achieve the desired drunk effect.

The more you drink, the more likely you are to develop a drinking problem.


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Ways to Get Out of the Gray Area

If you are worried that you are a gray area drinker, there are ways to help yourself. 

Here are some tips for getting out of the gray area:

  • Don’t keep alcohol in your house or within easy reach. If you live with others, ask them not to keep alcohol around. 
  • Limit drinking to a certain amount per week. For example, you may decide only to drink alcohol on the weekends.
  • Keep note of how often and how much you drink. Apps like Reframe, DrinkControl, and Drinker’s Helper can help you keep track.
  • Find new hobbies if you’re drinking out of boredom. Sign up for a club sport, go to the gym, join a local Meetup group, read a book, or start a new home project.
  • Talk to a therapist if you find that you’re drinking to escape reality. You can talk to a mental health professional in person, or you can check out mental health apps like Cerebral and BetterHelp that offer remote, online-only help.
  • Talk to a support group. A support group connects you with other gray area drinkers who have similar struggles with heavy drinking. 

Who Benefits from Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

Anyone who has a family history of alcohol dependence is more susceptible to developing one themselves. Similarly, anyone with a personal history of mental health disorders like depression is at a higher risk of developing an alcohol addiction.2

If you or someone you know is having a tough time cutting back on alcohol or quitting drinking, it could signify a bigger problem. 
Treatment is available. Options include rehabilitation centers, behavioral therapy, medication, and support groups.

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Updated on June 16, 2022
6 sources cited
  1. Alcohol Sales during the Covid-19 Pandemic.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. Alcohol.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization.
  3. Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  4. Gk, et al. “Alcohol Consumption Has Spiked during the Pandemic. Could the Consequences Outlast the Coronavirus?Boston University, 25 Mar. 2021.
  5. Killgore, William D.S., et al. “Alcohol Dependence during COVID-19 Lockdowns.” Psychiatry Research, Elsevier, 25 Dec. 2020.
  6. What Is a Standard Drink?” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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