What Is Gray Area Drinking? Do You Need To Be an Alcoholic To Quit?

When you think of “problem drinking,” you likely picture the obvious signs: relationship problems, losing jobs, or waking up on your bathroom floor a few times a week.

But what if you don’t have any of these issues, and your alcohol use still concerns you?

If you find yourself stuck in limbo between light social drinking and the classic signs of alcoholism, you might be what’s known as a “gray area drinker.”

Below, we’ll cover what exactly gray area drinking is, signs of gray area drinking, and how you can change your relationship with alcohol for the better.

What Is Gray Area Drinking?

woman walking through a vineyard with a glass in her hand
Photo by Trevor Gerzen on Unsplash

If you drink more often than every-now-and-again, but not so often that it’s visibly harming your life, you may be on the gray area drinking spectrum. Gray area drinking can be tricky to identify because there often aren’t any alarm bells telling you things need to change.

Maybe you binge drink with friends several times per month, or have a few glasses of wine with dinner every night—but still wake up and go to work the next day. On the outside, it might seem like nothing’s wrong.

Put simply, gray area drinking is the often-overlooked space between being a full-blown alcoholic and someone who only drinks socially (or never at all).

Signs of a Gray Area Drinker

Here are some signs to help you identify whether or not you’re a gray area drinker:

  • You feel concerned about your drinking, but you can never seem to quit permanently.
  • You haven’t experienced any life-shattering problems because of alcohol. But in the back of your mind, you still worry about it.
  • You drink to deal with emotions—i.e., you’ll have a mixed drink after work every night to cope with stress.
  • Alcohol is an integrated habit in your life. It almost seems unfathomable to go out with friends or relax after dinner without having a couple of drinks.

How Much Drinking is Unhealthy?

There is conflicting data about how much alcohol is bad for your health1. But generally, it’s agreed that you should stick to a maximum of:

  • Seven drinks or less per week for women
  • 14 drinks or less per week for men

Even if you stay close to these guidelines, each person’s body responds differently to alcohol. If you’re feeling sick, waking up with hangovers, or having significant alcohol cravings, there’s a good chance that you’re drinking more than your body can handle.

“Gray Area” vs Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is often part of gray area drinking, but this isn’t always the case. For instance, you might be a man who has two or three beers every night, but never more than that on a given day. Others may never see you drunk, but you may still wish you drank a bit less.

On the other hand, your version of gray area drinking might mean heavy binging on the weekends, but not drinking at all the rest of the week. What unites the two patterns is that you’re finding yourself drinking more than you’d like. This often does include binge drinking, but it doesn’t have to.

Are Gray Area Drinkers Alcoholics?

people raising beer glasses at a bar
Photo by Josh Olalde on Unsplash

So, does gray area drinking make you an alcoholic?

Not necessarily. One-third of Americans excessively drink, but only about 10 percent qualified as alcohol dependent in a 2011 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention2.

So, if you find yourself in the “gray area” of alcohol consumption, but don’t have any concrete signs that you have an alcohol use disorder, you may not be an “alcoholic” by definition.

However, heavy drinking does put you at higher risk for alcohol use disorder later on3. And the truth is many gray area drinkers don’t catch the slow progression of their alcohol use until it snowballs into bigger problems down the line.

“Sober Curious” & Mindful Drinking

If you feel that you’re showing signs of gray area drinking there are a number of new, trending ideas around drinking less to try out. You don’t need to be an alcoholic to want to cut back, and you don’t necessarily need to quit completely to change your relationship with alcohol.

Sober curious is a term coined by Ruby Warrington, co-founder of Club SÖDA NYC, for people who are… well, curious about sobriety. This movement isn’t about rigid abstinence—instead, it’s about considering your motives for drinking, and exploring how your life improves when you cut back.

Mindful drinking is another similar approach to alcohol use. It’s about being conscious about when, why, and how much you drink. To drink mindfully, take a moment before you grab another beer, shot, or cocktail, and consider why you’re making that choice. It’s all about paying attention and drinking with awareness.

Many people are adopting these and other similar approaches to drinking less, and it’s becoming easier and easier to find a better balance, and explain it to others. With the spread of sober bars and other alternatives, it’s also easier than ever to socialize without overdrinking.

Support for Cutting Back

That said, even if you aren’t experiencing full-blown alcohol addiction, it can be difficult to moderate or quit drinking on your own. Ria Health is one flexible way to learn how to drink less, even if you aren’t at “rock bottom.” Our smartphone app lets you talk to licensed medical professionals and coaches from home, and even get access to anti-craving medication if it will help.

Overcoming gray area drinking doesn’t have to mean stigma, or “white-knuckling it” by yourself. Reach out to a team member today to find out how we can help you meet your goals, on your terms.

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Minnesota-based freelancer and health advocate who aims to empower others through her work.
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