Throughout COVID-19, many Americans have turned to alcohol as a way to cope. Surveys suggest that 60% of people are drinking more than they did pre-pandemic. Those who say they’ve been feeling stressed because of COVID are especially likely to say they’re drinking more — and more often — than they used to.
This, in turn, suggests the number of “gray area” drinkers may be on the rise. It’s a nonclinical and somewhat vague term, albeit one that has gained traction in recent years. It generally describes people who drink with regularity, but do not meet clinical criteria for alcohol dependence.
Curious about gray area drinking? Here are some basics you should know.
What gray area drinking is — and isn’t
Again, “gray area drinking” is not a formal term that doctors or many addiction specialists will use. Still, it’s a concept that has lately captured public imagination, because it describes a category of people who’ve long been left out of conversations about substance abuse: those who aren’t necessarily living with addiction, but who have questions about their relationship with alcohol.
And that is, potentially, a pretty big group.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 90% of people who drink “excessively” (meaning they binge drink, are “heavy” drinkers, drink while they’re pregnant, or drink even though they’re under age 21) do not actually meet the clinical criteria for severe alcohol use disorder. At the same time, though, the official bar for heavy drinking is lower than many Americans realize. Health officials consider it to be anything above eight drinks per week for women and 15 drinks per week for men.
But even with thresholds and definitions in place, it’s not always clear when a person’s drinking has become problematic ― which is why groups like the CDC don’t say that a person’s drinking is a problem if they’re consuming, say, three drinks a night, three nights a week. Instead, they say drinking is a problem for a person if it causes trouble in their relationships, in school, in social activities, or in how they think and feel.
This is where the concept of gray area drinking can be useful. Many people turn to specific guideposts to help them determine if they have a health issue. And “gray area drinking” is a term that can help some people define their own relationship to alcohol in a way they may not have been able to before.
“My clients will say to me all the time that they function really well. Often they don’t have external consequences or stories, but they have internal questioning. That right there, where there’s that inner knowing, that’s the first thing to pay attention to.”
– Jolene Park, health coach
“I define gray area drinking as the space between two extremes,” said Jolene Park, a health coach based in Denver whose practice focuses on gray area drinking. She described the two polar extremes of drinking as one person with severe addiction versus another person who never drinks, or only drinks a few times a year.
“The reality is most people don’t drink in either one of those extreme categories,” Park said. “They drink in between that, which is the gray area.”
“My clients will say to me all the time that they function really well,” she added. “Often they don’t have external consequences or stories, but they have internal questioning. That right there, where there’s that inner knowing, that’s the first thing to pay attention to.”
Gray area drinking can look very different for different people. Some people may rarely drink at home, but go out and drink in excess socially, leading to “hangxiety.” Others might find they are not necessarily drinking so much that it gets in their way day-to-day, but they are drinking in a different way than they once did ― maybe as a relatively new coping mechanism for stress. Or maybe they’re simply thinking about alcohol more than they’d like. It’s not just the “when” and “how much” that matter; the “how” and the “why” are important too.
What to do if you’re concerned about gray area drinking
These examples only scratch the surface of what can be considered gray area drinking. If you’re questioning your relationship with alcohol at all, as Park said, that’s probably a sign it’s worth exploring.
And because gray area drinking is so broad and subjective, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to deal with it. Some people will benefit from the kinds of evidence-based treatments used for alcohol use disorder, including therapy, inpatient treatment programs and peer support groups. Prescription medications can also help.
Often the answer is abstinence, and many coaches, like Park, focus on an abstinence model. But not always.
“For a while, we’ve all been stuck with this one traditional form of addiction and how you get help,” said Khadi Oluwatoyin, founder of the Sober Black Girls Club, a nonprofit for Black women who run the gamut from being “sober curious” to those living with addiction. “For me, I think anyone should be able to explore their relationship with substances. They shouldn’t have to wait until it’s problematic, especially with a substance that is mind-altering.”
“In our meetings, we do open them to folks who are practicing harm reduction. We open them to folks who are contemplating whether they have a problem but are not ready to make that step,” she said. With a harm reduction model, a person might focus on decreasing the number of days per week they drink, or set clear start and stop times.
Ultimately, the growing variety of forms of support and treatment — as well as new types of terminology that might empower people typically left out of the conversation to join in — means, hopefully, that more people will get help than before, Oluwatoyin said.
“A person doesn’t even have to identify as a gray area drinker, they don’t have [to] identify as a problem drinker, they don’t have to identify as an addict or alcoholic to really question or get to understand their relationship with alcohol,” she said.