What Is Gray Area Drinking? Finding Healthy Limits With Alcohol

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When you think of “problem drinking,” you likely picture the obvious signs: relationship problems, losing jobs, or waking up nauseous on your bathroom floor a few times a week. If that doesn’t describe you, could you really have any issues with alcohol?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The term “alcoholism” is increasingly being replaced with alcohol use disorder (AUD), which exists along a spectrum. People who are generally “high functioning,” but have trouble controlling how much they drink, may have a mild form of AUD. And over time, this problem can worsen, eventually causing serious consequences.

In other words, problem drinking can sneak up on a person. And in a culture that encourages alcohol use in certain contexts, it can be pretty hard to catch the moment you cross the line. After several years of pandemic stress, with many people drinking more than they did previously, the search is on for the best way to discuss this issue. “Gray area drinking” is one term that is gaining some popularity.

But what, exactly, is a “gray area drinker”? Does this term really describe you, or is your drinking still within the spectrum of normal? Below, we’ll cover some common signs of gray area drinking, and how you can change your relationship with alcohol for the better if you are concerned about it.

What Is Gray Area Drinking?

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

If someone drinks more often than every-now-and-again, but not so often that it’s visibly harming their life, they could be considered a gray area drinker. Usually, the term refers to a person who’s alcohol use is a bit over the line, but not bad enough to ring any immediate alarm bells. Many people fall into this category at some point in their lives, which is part of why it’s so hard to identify as a problem.

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, but you might have a growing suspicion that you are drinking more than you should.

Signs and Symptoms of Gray Area Drinking

Because some level of alcohol use is so normalized in our culture, it can be pretty hard to tell when you are crossing the line. This is one of the reasons alcohol use disorder is so insidious—it’s possible to get to the point where you have some level of addiction before you or anyone else notices the warning signs. So, what are the red flags for gray area drinking that you should be aware of?

According to health coach Jolene Park, you may be a gray are drinker if:

  • You are able to quit drinking, but it’s hard to stay quit. You find yourself drinking again within a few weeks or months.
  • You haven’t experienced any life-shattering problems because of alcohol. But in the back of your mind, you still worry about it.
  • Your drinking doesn’t seem problematic to those around you, but you notice you are drinking fairly often.
  • You sometimes have a nagging voice in your head telling you to drink a bit less, and you go back and forth between listening to it and telling yourself to just “live a little.”1

This is a tricky position to be in, because this level of drinking is pretty common in our culture, and it’s not always such a big deal to have a drink or two. So how can you really be sure when you are overreacting, or when you are making excuses for unhealthy alcohol use?

How Much Drinking is Actually Unhealthy?

Despite conflicting information out there, in truth there is really no safe level of drinking. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization issued a statement on the matter, summarizing current research and confirming that any amount of alcohol use could have adverse health effects.2

That said, drinking is part of many cultures around the world, and it’s unrealistic to assume that nobody will ever consume any alcohol. Given that fact, the zone of lowest risk (often referred to as moderate drinking) is a maximum of:

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

However, 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.

Read more: Drinking Levels Defined

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What is the Difference Between Alcoholism and Gray Area Drinking?

“Alcoholism” is an outdated term, but it generally refers to a level of alcohol use disorder where drinking is causing significant negative impacts in a person’s life and health. Gray area drinkers may not be facing any negative consequences—yet—but they might be developing early signs of a problem known as alcohol use disorder (AUD).

This disorder exists on a spectrum, and mild AUD can be invisible to others. However, if you notice it’s hard to control your drinking, or that you are making decisions you regret in relation to alcohol, it’s important to check in with yourself. Excessive alcohol use has a tendency to “snowball” over time, and the earlier you catch it, the better.

To get a clearer sense of where you stand, take our alcohol use assessment.

“Gray Area” vs Binge Drinking

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

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.

Tips For Scaling Back Your Alcohol Use

People who are “gray area drinkers” often drink excessively because of their social context, or as a way to relieve stress. So, if you are concerned about your alcohol use, try some of these tips to replace or reduce the need for alcohol in your life:

Identify your real needs

What is it that you’re actually looking for when you pour that glass of wine in the evening? If it’s relaxation, identify some other things you can do to wind down. If it’s to cope with difficult emotions, what are some other solutions to what’s troubling you? Place the focus on your well-being, and what will truly make a difference.

Take a good look at your social life

If your drinking is starting to concern you, but seems normal in the context of those you spend time with, it’s possible that your social circle is too alcohol-focused. One helpful solution is to find new activities or interests that will lead to an expanded social life. If you are around people who don’t drink much, it can be much easier to cut back.

Find alternative stress management tools

If you sometimes drink to cope with the pressures of daily life, try some alternative solutions. Schedule more time in nature, incorporate more physical activity into your schedule, or try meditating. Breathwork, mindfulness practice, and even just taking the time to sit can work wonders. If you have a demanding schedule, try setting aside just 30 minutes of “you time” per day, to decompress.

Add new activities into your life

On top of new stress management tools and alternative social activities, it can help to add in new hobbies and interests. Identify a skill you’ve been wanting to learn, or find a creative practice such as music or art to engage in. Expanding your interests can give you more alternatives to drinking, and more motivation to avoid excessive alcohol use.

The Sober Curious & Mindful Drinking Movements

If you think you’re showing signs of gray area drinking, the good news is there are number of recent movements of others in the same position: people who don’t consider themselves alcoholics, but wish to reassess how they drink.

Sober curious is a term coined by Ruby Warrington, for people who are… well, curious about sobriety.3 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 reducing your 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. 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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Written By:
Ria Health Team
Ria Health’s editorial team is a group of experienced copywriters, researchers, and healthcare professionals dedicated to removing stigma and improving public knowledge around alcohol use disorder. Articles written by the “Ria Team” are collaborative works completed by several members of our writing team, fact-checked and edited to a high standard of empathy and accuracy.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.

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