What is Gray Area Drinking?

Many people are unsure if their drinking habits should be considered unhealthy. This can be especially true for those who don’t display or identify with the traditional signs of severe heavy drinking. “Gray area drinking” often refers to potentially unhealthy drinking habits that aren’t clearly recognizable as harmful. 

Everyone has a different relationship with alcohol, and there is no criteria you need to meet in order to build healthier habits. However, it can be helpful to understand some of the existing guidelines surrounding alcohol consumption and learn about the common signs of unhealthy drinking. 

What is gray area drinking?

The term “gray area drinking” might resonate with any person who is uncertain if they should change their relationship with alcohol. It’s a common misconception that you have to identify as an “alcoholic,” “hit rock bottom,” or suffer significant consequences of alcohol dependence before starting to make a change. If you’ve ever wondered “am I a gray area drinker?,” you’re not alone. Many people feel like they fall into a gray area somewhere between “rock bottom” and a healthy relationship with alcohol. I often see patients who can maintain a high-functioning lifestyle but lack boundaries around alcohol or often regret how much they drink on certain occasions. These are all qualities one might associate with gray area drinking. Let’s take a look at some more specific signs of unhealthy drinking that can often go unnoticed.

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Signs of gray area drinking

Feelings of guilt or shame can often cause us to downplay the effect alcohol is having on our lives, and avoid confronting our true feelings about it. This can make it more difficult to fully recognize the impact of our drinking habits. Learning more about what gray area drinking looks like is the first step towards recognizing patterns in your own life.

Signs of gray area drinking include: 

  • Not being able to imagine socializing, cooking, going to bed, or any other ritual without drinking wine, beer, or liquor
  • Regretting the amount or frequency of alcohol consumed in a given day or week 
  • Sensing that alcohol is starting to harm an aspect of your physical or mental health, but feeling like symptoms aren’t severe enough to seek help 
  • Using alcohol intentionally for a buzz, burst of energy, or any other mood shift
  • Not feeling comfortable sharing alcohol-related concerns or challenges with loved ones because you think they wouldn’t see your habits as “problematic drinking” 
  • Experiencing chronic anxiety or “hangxiety” that is noticeable but not debilitating 
  • Knowing you can stop drinking but finding it hard to do so for an extended period of time
  • Feeling like you have to hide your drinking, especially when drinking alone 

The uncertainty of whether it’s time to change your drinking habits and how to do so can be exhausting and overwhelming for many individuals. Recognizing these signs and exploring tools to help cut back, such as an online alcohol treatment program, can help you gain perspective and get the support you deserve.

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Understanding gray area drinking in medical terms

It’s important to note that while the term “gray area drinking” is gaining recognition in pop culture, it isn’t a clinical term. However, medical experts do recognize that our relationship with alcohol exists on a spectrum. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a clinically diagnosable condition that ranges from mild to moderate to severe. An AUD diagnosis is based on eleven criteria per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). The criteria include things like experiencing alcohol cravings and continuing to drink despite negative consequences. If you resonate with the experience of those who identify as gray area drinkers, it’s possible that you fall somewhere on the alcohol use disorder spectrum. You can take our free alcohol questionnaire to see if you meet the criteria, and if so, to what severity.

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Medical terms such as alcohol use disorder or cultural concepts like gray area drinking can provide helpful frameworks for identifying unhealthy drinking. For example, if you’re on the spectrum for AUD, you would likely benefit from guidance from an expert care team when making a change. However, even if your drinking patterns don’t meet specific criteria or definitions, it doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from cutting back on your alcohol intake. Your own wisdom and curiosity will be the ultimate signal that this is a habit you want to see change and that alone is proof that you’re ready to explore sobriety or moderation.

How to escape gray area drinking habits

Acronyms are one of my favorite ways to provide helpful reminders for self-care. This G.R.A.Y. acronym summarizes four critical steps you can take to begin changing your alcohol intake. 

1. Ground yourself in the moment

Try to notice all the sensory cues before, during, and after you drink an alcoholic beverage. This can help you understand the thoughts, emotions, and environments that can contribute to your urge to drink. This grounding process can look like observing your environment with your 5 senses or even narrating your actions to yourself in order to notice what is happening in an attentive way. 

Some people also practice mindful drinking to remain conscious of their drinking patterns and avoid excessive drinking. As you practice being present, you will learn important insights about your current relationship with alcohol.

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2. Reflect on what you want to see change:

The more you observe your drinking patterns, the more likely you are to develop a clear picture of what you’d like to change. Allowing space for honest reflection is an important next step. For example, if you start to notice you’re drinking to alter your mood, you can pause to reflect on why that may be: 

  • What emotions are you feeling? 
  • Why are you looking to avoid these emotions? 
  • What could you do to honor and process these feelings instead of self-medicating with alcohol

Trust yourself: if discomfort arises, listen to the signals your body is giving you. Use these insights as you begin to brainstorm what your life might look like if you had a different relationship with alcohol. Ask yourself questions like, what are my goals? Is abstinence or moderation right for me? What treatment options might help me on my recovery journey? Exploring these questions with self-compassion and an open mind will lead you to meaningful answers.

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3. Act in incremental ways:

Once you decide you want to decrease your alcohol consumption, it’s time to start taking steps towards that goal. If you feel overwhelmed, that’s a signal to break down your goal into smaller steps. That may include setting drink limits, talking to a therapist in alcohol therapy, or attending 1-2 alcohol support groups each week. 

Just like in nature, progress is a gradual process. Even if steps feel small, they’re setting the groundwork for sustainable change. Once you become more comfortable with one change, you’ll feel confident and motivated to make another. The actions you take will eventually become a routine, and you will develop a deep sense of pride in your progress that can extend out into all areas of your life. 

4. You-tilize your inner wisdom: 

Yes, we’re going extra cheesy here and for good measure. As you work on maintaining your sobriety or moderation goals, remember that you are your own best guide. If you experience a setback or start to feel disconnected from your goals, lean on the tools and resources that have worked for you in the past. 

This could mean continuing therapy even when you feel you have “met” your goals, practicing alcohol-free routines long after cravings for an alcoholic beverage have subsided, or leaning on your supportive community. Trusting your inner wisdom and staying connected to your goal will keep leading you towards all the benefits you have to gain. Remember, this journey is about progress, not perfection.

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Reflecting on your relationship with alcohol is an act of self-care for your physical and mental health. Following the G.R.A.Y. acronym can help guide you as you create meaningful and lasting changes. Over time, this process can help you avoid any gray area drinking patterns and reduce the role alcohol plays in your life. Whether you want to work towards total abstinence or set goals to achieve moderate drinking, the clinicians and community at Monument are here to support you on your journey. Seeking out more information about this topic is already a step to be incredibly proud of. 

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Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Sabrina SpotornoSabrina Spotorno, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with an affinity for working with children, adolescents, individuals, and families. She is a therapist on the Monument platform, and is trained in several modalities, including Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Narrative Therapy. She’s passionate about empowering her clients to recognize their strengths amidst their life transitions to optimize their sense of efficacy and alignment of their actions with their beliefs and dreams.