Article at a Glance:  

  • Drinking in moderation may not pose any health risks, but “gray area drinking,” which may be deemed socially acceptable, can be risky.
  • Gray area drinking extends beyond social drinking and can escalate to the point of alcohol misuse.
  • While gray area drinking may not be as severe as alcoholism, it can place a person at risk of alcohol addiction.

Social drinking is common in the United States. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 69.5% of American adults reported that they had consumed alcohol within the past year in 2019. Additionally, 54.9% reported drinking within the last month. 

While drinking socially and in moderation may not be problematic, consuming too much alcohol can be risky, even in a social context. One term that has arisen to describe alcohol consumption that falls in between social drinking and alcohol misuse is “gray area drinking.” 

What Is Gray Area Drinking? 

“Gray area drinking” refers to a level of alcohol consumption that falls between moderate and risky drinking. Gray area drinking can describe people who misuse alcohol or struggle to control their alcohol consumption but do not fulfill criteria for an alcohol use disorder, or alcohol addiction. A gray area drinker has not reached the rock bottom point of alcohol addiction, but their alcohol consumption is increasing and can begin to create consequences. 

Facts that help to describe gray area drinking include:

  • Experts define “moderate drinking” as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men. 
  • Binge drinking is often described as four or more drinks in one sitting for a woman and five or more drinks in a sitting for a man.
  • People are considered to be heavy drinkers if they binge drink on at least five days in a given month. 
  • Gray area drinkers consume more than what is considered to be moderate drinking. While their drinking levels may be risky, they do not yet fulfill criteria for an alcohol use disorder. 
  • Gray area drinking patterns, such as binge drinking and heavy drinking, increase a person’s risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Gray Area Drinking?

While gray area drinking can look a little different for everyone, these signs are common for gray area drinkers:

  • Physical side effects, including hangovers, after a night of binge drinking 
  • Building up a tolerance to alcohol so that larger quantities are needed to achieve the same desired effects
  • Beginning to have some anxiety surrounding your drinking, such as worrying that you may be drinking too much or that people are negatively judging you
  • Feeling as if you need alcohol in order to relax or have a good time with friends 
  • Having times when you are able to stop drinking, perhaps for weeks or even months, but you eventually feel compelled to return to drinking 

What Is the Difference Between Alcoholism and Gray Area Drinking? 

People who are researching gray area drinking often wonder how this form of alcohol consumption differs from alcoholism. When people use the term alcoholism, they are typically referring to alcohol use disorder, which is the clinical term for alcohol addiction. An alcohol use disorder is a legitimate medical condition that causes changes in the brain and makes it difficult to stop drinking.

Someone who has an alcohol use disorder will continue to drink even when they face serious consequences from drinking. The difference between an alcohol use disorder vs. gray area drinking is that people who are gray area drinkers do not yet meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Their drinking levels are not as severe, and they have some ability to control their drinking. If left untreated, however, gray area drinking can progress to an alcohol use disorder. 

At-Home Solutions to Gray Area Drinking

Gray area drinking can become problematic, but the good news is that there are at-home solutions for addressing gray area drinking. Consider these strategies.

Consider What You Get Out of Drinking

If you are drinking beyond what is considered moderate, it may be time to consider what you get out of drinking, as alcohol is likely serving some sort of function in your life. If you’re drinking excessively to socialize, perhaps you could consider joining other social activities that do not involve alcohol. You may also realize you are drinking excessively in order to relax or cope with stress. Once you identify the reason behind your drinking, you can look for alternative activities that provide the same function as alcohol.

Take Some Time off From Drinking

While gray area drinkers do engage in a risky level of drinking, their symptoms do not rise to the level of being an alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction. This means that gray area drinkers are not likely to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and they can typically take time off from drinking without experiencing a strong compulsion to resume alcohol consumption. If you’re struggling with gray area drinking, consider taking an extended period — perhaps just a month or two — off from drinking to see how it impacts you. Going without alcohol for a period may help you to realize that life is better without it. 

Notice the Benefits of Giving up Alcohol 

People may drink to socialize or relax, but over time, you’re likely to find that risky levels of drinking actually make stress and anxiety worse. It can also begin to interfere with your relationships. Once you take some time off from alcohol, you may notice benefits such as:

  • Improved relationships 
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Better sleep
  • Increased energy levels and productivity 
  • No more unpleasant hangovers 
  • Weight loss
  • Improved immune system functioning 

If you take time off and realize that being without drinking provides these benefits, you may be encouraged to permanently reduce or eliminate your alcohol consumption. 

Weigh the Pros and Cons

Maybe you’re having a difficult time deciding whether you want to reduce or give up drinking. In this case, you may be able to cut back on your alcohol consumption by listing the pros and cons of drinking. Maybe you do experience some benefits, such as an opportunity to socialize and relax, when you drink. On the other hand, you’re likely also experiencing some drawbacks, such as relationship issues, frequent hangovers and perhaps anxiety surrounding your alcohol consumption. If the drawbacks outweigh the advantages, you might decide that continuing to drink isn’t worth the problems it brings to your life.

How To Get Help

While some people may benefit from at-home solutions to reduce gray area drinking, others may decide that they need additional support. Perhaps you’ve been wondering if it’s time to seek treatment to help you cut back on drinking.

While you cannot self-diagnose an alcohol use disorder, you can use online assessments to help you determine if your drinking level is risky or correlates with symptoms of an alcohol use disorder. You can take some of our drinking assessments to learn more about alcohol use disorder and whether you show symptoms of it. 

Online assessments can be completed in just a few minutes, and they can give you an idea of whether you may benefit from talking to a professional about treatment for an alcohol use disorder. If you’re looking for additional support to help you cut down on drinking, you may also benefit from attending a support group meeting, such as AA. A large body of research has demonstrated that AA is effective for reducing drinking levels and the consequences associated with alcohol misuse. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, The Recovery Village can help. Contact us today to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can work well for your needs.

Gray Area Drinking FAQ

The answers to these frequently asked questions can be helpful if you’re interested in learning about gray area drinking.

Who might be at risk for gray area drinking? Gray area drinking may not meet the criteria for an alcohol addiction, but gray area drinkers are still engaging in risky drinking behaviors. You may be at risk for this type of drinking if you are experiencing significant stress or coping with negative emotions. If you are surrounded by others who drink heavily or experience peer pressure to drink, you may also become a gray area drinker. 

What is alcohol use disorder? An alcohol use disorder is classified as a mental health condition and a brain disorder. It occurs when drinking causes changes in the brain and makes it difficult for a person to stop consuming alcohol. This is the clinical term for alcohol addiction or alcoholism. 

How do you know when you drink too much? Experts recommend that women limit their alcohol consumption to one drink per day and men limit their consumption to a maximum of two drinks per day. Exceeding these limits can place you at risk of consequences from alcohol consumption. You can take an online assessment to determine if your drinking levels are risky or may be suggestive of an alcohol use disorder. 

What is the sober curious movement? When people are in treatment for an alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction, they typically abstain completely from alcohol. This is because they may have a difficult time controlling their drinking and can relapse to a full-blown alcohol use disorder if they consume any amount of alcohol. The sober curious movement describes a new trend where people who are not addicted to alcohol choose to abstain from drinking in order to determine if giving up alcohol improves their overall health and wellness. People who are “sober curious” do not give up drinking because they have a clinical addiction. Instead, they are experimenting to determine if life is better without alcohol. 

Jonathan Strum
Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
Jenni Jacobsen
Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has seven years of experience working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more
Sources

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.