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What Is Gray Area Drinking?

Most people know there's a big difference between drinking moderately and binge drinking, but what about gray area drinking? Gray area drinking describes the middle ground between these two types of drinking.

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So what exactly is gray area drinking? And who is at risk for it? How much alcohol consumption is too much? How can you make your drinking more intentional? Let's explore!

What Is Gray Area Drinking?

Gray area drinking is a term used to describe the gray area between moderate drinking and alcoholism. It can be tricky to define because it varies from person to person. For some people, gray area drinking may mean having a couple of drinks a week.

For others, it may mean having a few drinks several times a week. And for some people, it may mean drinking every day.

There are a few different ways to think about gray area drinking. One way is to think of it as a spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum is moderate drinking, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.

On the other end of the spectrum is rock bottom alcoholism, a chronic and often progressive disease characterized by intense cravings for alcohol, difficulty controlling one's drinking, and continuing to drink despite negative consequences.

Gray area drinking falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Another way to think about gray area drinking is to consider the intention behind the drinking. People drink moderately to enjoy social drinking and the pleasurable effects of alcohol. Gray area drinking may also follow these reasons, but it often includes a more compulsive quality.

People who engage in gray area drinking may feel like they need to drink to relax or de-stress or may drink more than intended. They may also feel like they can't stop once they start drinking.

So what are some signs that you or someone you know may be engaging in gray area drinking? Here are a few key things to look for.

Signs of Gray Area Drinking

Whether you're concerned for yourself or your loved ones, here's what to pay attention to that may be signs of a gray area drinking habit:

Drinking Anxiety

Do you get anxious or stressed if you can't drink? Or do you worry about when you'll be able to drink next?

Drinking anxiety can also look like regretting the last drink or battling a constant dialogue in your head about drinking. Wondering and worrying about your drinking behavior is a sign it may be out of control.

Increased Tolerance

Do you find that you need to drink more to feel the same effects? Tolerance is a sign that your body is becoming used to the alcohol and may mean you're drinking more than is healthy. Growing alcohol tolerance can also become a severe alcohol use disorder, so try to be acutely aware of it.

Trouble Quitting for Good

Have you tried to cut back or stop drinking but found it difficult or impossible to do so permanently? Gray area drinkers (GADs) are typically able to stop and take breaks, but they find it very difficult to maintain those breaks for long periods.

Having a hard time making any permanent changes may indicate that your relationship with alcohol has become problematic.

Disbelief of Others

Unlike alcoholism, which can make people refuse to acknowledge their problems, GADs may try to express their worry or concern over their drinking behavior only to have it doubted by friends and family – because it "doesn't look like you have a problem."

Maintaining a successful job, keeping up with life duties, and investing in healthy relationships don't mean your drinking behavior isn't an issue. Unlike alcoholism, GAD usually doesn’t include a job loss or loss of relationships.

Who's at Risk of Gray Drinking?

Certain people may be more likely than others to find themselves in the gray area between moderate and problematic drinking. These include:


Although men are still more likely to develop alcoholism, women are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder at lower levels of consumption, which may be due to differences in how men's and women's bodies process alcohol.

Middle-Aged Adults

The risk for gray area drinking increases as people age, possibly because of changes in metabolism, increased stress, and other life factors.

People With Anxiety, Depression, or Other Mental Health Conditions

People who struggle with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression may be more likely to develop gray area drinking habits. These folks may be drinking to self-medicate with alcohol or using alcohol to cope with negative emotions.

People Who Have Experienced Trauma

Traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, or military combat can increase the risk of developing gray area drinking habits. Trauma survivors may be inclined to use alcohol to numb the pain of these memories.

How Much Drinking Is Too Much?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as it depends on many factors such as age, weight, gender, and overall health. However, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides some general guidelines.

For men, drinking more than four drinks in a day or 14 drinks in a week is considered problematic. For women, drinking more than three drinks in a day or seven drinks in a week is cause for concern. Certain factors, like the alcohol content of beer, wine or liquor, does affect how many "drinks" is considered problematic.

It's also important to note that these guidelines are for healthy adults without other risk factors. If you have any medical conditions or take medications that interact with alcohol, you should speak to your doctor about what's safe for you.

Gray Area Drinking vs. Binge Drinking vs. Alcoholism

Gray area drinking, binge drinking, and alcoholism are three different things.

Gray area drinking describes problematic drinking that falls short of full-blown alcoholism. GAD often gets characterized by struggling to control or stop drinking despite negative consequences.

Binge drinking is a repetition of excessive alcohol consumption that typically raises blood alcohol concentration levels to at least 0.08 grams percent. Passing the binge drinking threshold typically happens when men drink five or more alcoholic beverages or when women drink four or more alcoholic beverages in about two hours.

Alcohol dependence isn’t quite alcoholism, but it may lead to it. Alcoholism is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes symptoms such as a strong craving for alcohol, trouble quitting, drinking more than intended, and continued drinking despite negative consequences.

How to Help Someone (or Yourself) With Gray Drinking

If you're worried about your drinking or the drinking of a loved one, there are steps you can take to get help.

Get Medical Help

Talk to a doctor or other healthcare professional. They can help you assess your drinking habits and determine if they're problematic.

Talk to Someone

Seek out a therapist or counselor who specializes in treating alcohol use disorder. A trained professional can help you understand the root causes of your drinking and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Find Support

Attend a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery. Support groups like these provide social and emotional support from others dealing with similar issues.

Make Lifestyle Changes

Exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep. These things can help reduce stress and improve your overall wellness.

Limit Your Access to Alcohol

Get rid of the alcohol in your home, and try cutting back when you’re out and about. If you go out, only take a limited amount of cash with you so you can't buy more alcohol if you run out.

Ask Loved Ones to Keep You Accountable

Tell your friends and family about your decision to cut back on drinking. Ask them to support you by not drinking in front of you or pressuring you to drink more.

The Benefits of Sobriety or Mindful Drinking

There are many benefits to sobriety or mindful drinking, such as improved health, increased productivity, and an improvement in relationships.

Sobriety can help improve your overall health. When you stop drinking, your liver will start healing, and you'll be at less risk for developing diseases such as cancer. You'll also have more energy and be able to think more clearly.

Mindful drinking can help you be more productive. When you're not hungover or dealing with the after-effects of alcohol, you'll be able to focus more on your work and other obligations.

Sobriety or mindful drinking can also improve your relationships. Drinking can cause arguments and lead to distance in your relationships.

When you're sober, you'll be more present and able to connect with loved ones more deeply. You'll also make stronger, longer-lasting memories and be able to enjoy life's moments more.

Maintaining Healthy Drinking Habits

Though there are many benefits to sobriety or mindful drinking, it's important to note that these things require work and effort. It's not always easy to quit drinking cold turkey or change your entire lifestyle overnight. But if you're willing to commit to sobriety or mindful drinking, you can overcome any obstacle and reclaim your life.