Gray Area Drinking: Do You Fall in Between Moderate and Risky Drinking?

man drinking alcohol

When you’re feeling anxious or need to relax after a long day, how do you usually cope? Some people reach for a glass of wine or a cocktail - or two. With the favorable attitude that society has towards alcohol, it’s easy to feel validated in your drinking habits. But how do you know when your ‘acceptable’ range of alcohol use could be causing more problems than you realize? 

Gray area drinking (GAD) refers to a category of alcohol consumption that falls between moderate drinking and alcohol use disorder (AUD). Individuals in the gray area may not meet the clinical criteria for alcohol dependence, but their drinking patterns are not exactly healthy, either. For example, people in the gray area may binge drink or rely on alcohol to manage stress.

Let’s learn more about gray area drinking and how it compares to an alcohol use disorder, the types of behaviors that people may display and how to know if you can benefit from alcohol treatment in Easton PA

What is Gray Area Drinking and Why is it a Problem? 

Gray area drinking is a fairly new term, so if you haven’t heard of it before, you're not alone. But it’s an important term to know, as it can help you recognize potentially harmful behaviors that can lead to an alcohol use disorder. Like other things in the gray area, GAD falls in the middle. Individuals who gray area drink do not have an addiction to alcohol, but they are not occasional drinkers, either. 

For instance, GADs tend to drink in social settings or to unwind after work. However, they are not dependent on alcohol in a clinical sense. This is a good thing, as it allows them to rethink their drinking habits before they evolve into something bigger. Drinking regularly has mental, emotional, social and physical consequences whether there’s a full-blown addiction or not. 

According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, no amount of alcohol is ‘good for you.’ The study analyzed levels of alcohol use and its health effects on people from 195 countries between the years of 1990 to 2016. While there are some studies that show that drinking a moderate amount of red wine can lower your risk for heart disease, those gains are canceled out by the increased risks for cancer, other diseases and risky behavior. 

Signs and Symptoms of GAD

Gray area drinking isn’t easy to diagnose because there are typically no symptoms. Interestingly, 90 percent of people who drink excessively do not meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for having a severe alcohol use disorder. Symptoms of AUD include an inability to limit drinking, needing to drink more to get the same effects, intense cravings and continuing to drink despite personal and professional problems. 

With gray area drinkers, however, the lines are far less clear. Gray area drinkers typically look like everyday social drinkers, but there are a few ways you can tell the difference:

  • Secretly worrying about how much you drink. The behavior may not be out of hand, but you may worry that it’s slipping closer to becoming a problem.
  • On and off drinking. You may be able to stop for a while, but you always return to drinking. Stress or anxiety tend to push you over.
  • Using alcohol as a coping tool. You may rely on alcohol to cope with uncomfortable emotions, or to fill a void in your life. 
  • Experiencing adverse effects. You worry about the effects of your drinking, such as binge drinking, hangovers, sleepless nights and waking up with regrets.

group of friends drinking alcohol

Who is at Risk for Gray Area Drinking? 

Brain chemistry is partly responsible for gray area drinking. Deficiencies in any of the neurotransmitters - dopamine, serotonin, GABA - can cause you to reach for a drink as a way to cope. 

For example, if you have low GABA, you may drink to relax. If you have low serotonin, you may drink to have fun. And if you have a deficiency in serotonin, you may drink to connect with others and be social. Having all three deficiencies can put you at risk for excess alcohol consumption. 

Sometimes, a tragedy jumpstarts gray area drinking, such as divorce, the loss of a loved one or financial struggles. Unfortunately, no one is immune to these adversities, so it’s important to pay attention to how you cope. If alcohol seems to be your coping mechanism of choice, you could, over time, develop a more problematic drinking problem. 

When to Seek Help for Gray Area Drinking

It’s not easy to tell when you need help for gray area drinking because of the lack of symptoms. However, if you ever feel that you don’t want to continue drinking the way you are, it’s time to make a change. Fortunately, it’s much easier to treat gray area drinking than a true alcohol use disorder. 

Some of the ways you can cut back on drinking include: 

  • Write down the reasons why you want to stop drinking, such as sleeping better, feeling healthier or improving your relationships. 
  • Set a limit on how much you can drink. You should keep it below the recommended CDC guidelines: no more than one standard drink per day for women and no more than two standard drinks per day for men. 
  • Don’t keep alcohol in the house. This will reduce the temptation to drink. 
  • Choose alcohol-free days, days where you don’t drink. 
  • Be able to say no when being offered a drink.  
  • Keep busy with healthy activities that don’t involve alcohol such as painting, music or playing sports. 
  • Ask for support. There are many options available such as podcasts, sober online communities, books, 12-step meetings and outpatient programs. 

Comprehensive Alcohol Treatment in Easton PA 

If you believe that you are a gray area drinker, the most important question to ask yourself is: “What am I trying to accomplish by drinking?” For many GADs, it comes down to coping. Alcohol relieves stress and anxiety temporarily and can be used as a crutch. 

Continuing to rely on alcohol can cause you to reach for it anytime you feel stressed. Over time, you can become dependent on this substance, putting you at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder. The best thing to do is seek support, understand why you are drinking and cut back or eliminate alcohol.

Recovery Cove offers flexible, convenient outpatient programs that treat alcohol use disorders of all severities. Contact us today at 484-549-COVE to learn more about how we can support you on your journey to a healthier life.