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What is Gray Area Drinking and Do I Need Treatment For It?

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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of alcohol abuse have increased throughout the United States. Surveys have revealed that increased drinking can be attributed to increased stress, increased alcohol availability, and boredom, but people struggling with stress reported consuming more drinks on more days of the month than other individuals.[1]

In moderation, drinking alcohol can be relatively safe, but not everyone has a healthy relationship with alcohol. There are many different types of unhealthy drinking patterns, including binge drinking and heavy drinking. However, a new drinking style has emerged over the last few years: gray area drinking.

What is Gray Area Drinking?

Gray area drinking is a slang term used to describe drinking habits that are driven by unpleasant emotions and are habitual in nature but are not characterized by a physical dependence on alcohol. It is the risky territory that lies between acceptable alcohol use and a serious drinking problem. In other words, someone who is a gray area drinker may have a drinking problem, but they don’t necessarily have an alcohol use disorder. It is a little more excessive than social drinking, but it isn’t quite destructive.

For some people, drinking alcohol has been a method of coping with pandemic-related stress and emotions such as anxiety, depression, or fear. While alcohol may be able to temporarily numb these emotions, it is not a healthy or sustainable coping mechanism. However, many people are hesitant to label a drinking problem as “alcoholism” because not everyone has a severe alcohol use disorder, and there are a lot of stigmas tied to terms such as these.

According to the CDC, nearly 90% of excessive drinkers do not have a severe alcohol use disorder.[2] These individuals may rely on alcohol to cope with stress or turn drinking into a habit, but they don’t have a physical dependence on alcohol or have a problem limiting their drinking if they need to do so. People who fall into this “gray area” may identify more with being a “gray area drinker” rather than a full-blown alcoholic.

Is Gray Area Drinking Dangerous?

Unless you are drinking in moderation (1 drink or less a day for women and 2 drinks or less a day for men), it is impossible to guarantee that your drinking habits are not dangerous. Gray area drinking can be dangerous if:

  • You binge drink when you drink
  • You get behind the wheel during or after drinking
  • You are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • You have a tendency to hurt yourself or lash out at others when you drink alcohol
  • You experience frequent hangovers

Gray area drinking can also be dangerous if you fail to acknowledge the problems that you have and take steps to modify your drinking patterns. Long-term alcohol abuse often leads to alcoholism at some point or another, and the longer you drink heavily, the more likely you are to develop a physical dependency or addiction.

How Do You Know if You Are a Gray Area Drinker?

Falling into gray area drinking can be easier than you would think. After all, many people believe that their relationship with alcohol is healthy if they can control or moderate their drinking at times.

Signs you may be a gray area drinker include:

  • Drinking has become a habit or ritual, but you don’t get sick with withdrawal symptoms if you miss a drink – Do you often look forward to celebrating “wine o’clock” at the end of a long day or binging on alcohol to fall asleep? Do you experience anxiety or overwhelming emotions if you can’t drink alcohol when you usually do? You may fall into this gray area if you answered yes, but don’t experience symptoms of withdrawal when you stop drinking.
  • You can stop drinking for periods of time, but it’s really hard to stay stopped – Have you ever had to stop drinking for health or personal reasons, and you were able to, but you thought about drinking all the time? Did you return to drinking as soon as you were able to do so? You may be in the gray area.
  • Your drinking doesn’t look problematic to people around you, but you’ve questioned whether or not it really is – When someone struggles with alcoholism, their friends and family are often the first to realize something is wrong. However, if you are a gray area drinker, your drinking habits may still seem socially acceptable, but your gut may be telling you otherwise.

Some people may be OK with gray area drinking, but others may want to get a drinking problem under control as soon as possible. As soon as you feel a desire to stop drinking the way you’ve been drinking, it’s time to get support.

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Get The Care You Need and Deserve

Woburn Wellness Addiction Treatment is a leader in the addiction treatment field, with proven success in facilitating long-term recovery. Our team of top clinical & medical experts specializes in treating addiction coupled with mental illness, ensuring that each person receives individualized care. Call us – we’re available 24/day, 7 days/week.

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Deciding if You Need Treatment for a Drinking Problem

If there is any question in your mind that you have a drinking problem, you probably do to some degree. However, that doesn’t always mean you need to uproot your life, put everything on pause, and go to a residential treatment facility. If you have a mild to moderate alcohol use disorder, you may be able to recover on an outpatient basis that is sensitive to your schedule and personal needs.

Signs that you can benefit from alcohol rehab include:

  • You keep drinking despite the fact that alcohol is causing personal or professional problems in your life
  • You can’t limit your drinking even when you really need to
  • You’ve noticed that you need to drink more alcohol than  you once did you feel the desired effects (tolerance)
  • You often experience cravings for alcohol that are so strong that you can’t think about anything else
  • Your friends and family are concerned about your drinking patterns
  • You experience symptoms of withdrawal if you stop drinking

Alcoholism is often progressive, so if you have a drinking problem, there is a chance it could get worse before it gets better.

Find Treatment for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Today

At Woburn Wellness, our alcohol rehab program in Woburn, MA combines proven therapeutic methods of healing with effective holistic modalities, making for integrated and highly individualized care. Your needs are important to us, which is why every person’s treatment plan is unique based on their needs. Asking for help isn’t easy, but our compassionate, understanding admissions coordinators are always here to assist you. Call now to speak with a professional about your treatment options and get your drinking under control today.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7763183/
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#alcoholismAbuse
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Medically Reviewed By

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC Clinical Director
Learn about Inessa Maloney

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC has been dedicated to the mental health and substance abuse field for a decade, providing her expertise to guarantee quality and accuracy.

  • Specializes in outpatient services with a focus on substance abuse
  • Expertise in reality-based therapy, CBT/DBT, and motivational interviewing
  • Holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling
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