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  • Dana Golden

What Is Gray Area Drinking?

Assessing the toll pandemic drinking has taken and what you can do about it.

Woman thinking, stressed

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Key Points

  • Gray area drinkers do not have a physical dependency on alcohol but may drink in non-social situations and wonder why.

  • Gray area drinkers often experience "hangxiety"—the anxiety that comes with heavy alcohol use coupled with the physical effects of a hangover.

  • Drinking more mindfully or taking time off from drinking can help gray area drinkers find clarity around their alcohol use.


Have you been drinking away pandemic stress for the last couple of years? Have you found yourself drinking more during your virtual happy hours because you don't have to worry about driving home? If so, you may be a "gray area drinker."

So, what is gray area drinking?

As in any gray area of life, gray area drinking isn’t clearly defined; it’s a zone with fuzzy boundaries that sits between moderate drinking and rock bottom. By definition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that moderate or social drinking is one cocktail or less for women in a day and two cocktails or less for men in a day. However, a study by Rand Corporation found that those numbers have doubled to tripled during the pandemic, and respondents reported having two “heavy drinking” days per week.

Throughout the pandemic, the lack of opportunities to socially interact led to more drinking at home and individually. With additional stressors at home, alcohol has been an easy place to turn, because, as a society, we find a break from it all in a bottle. Being home made it easy to go from a glass of wine to the entire bottle or from one cocktail to a second and a third.

Whether used as a stress reducer, relaxation mechanism, or a well-deserved reward, alcohol is being misused. We all laughed at the TikToks celebrating wine o’clock and new morning rituals of cocktails in robes, but with the increase in alcohol came an increase in gray area drinkers.

As a relatively new term, gray area drinking is just getting on the lexical map, but according to the American Addictions Center, it’s affecting over 75 million Americans. If you're experiencing a change in your drinking habits, you’re not alone: Binge drinking has risen by 21%, and there’s been a 41% increase in heavy drinking among women.

Gray area drinkers do not have a physical dependency on alcohol; they drink because they want to, not to avoid withdrawal symptoms. They don’t identify as having alcohol use disorder, so they wouldn’t be comfortable in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and they can stop anytime they want to. The problem is that they either question why they should bother stopping in the first place, knowing they’re not dependent on it, or they often do stop only to pick it up again.

Gray area drinkers once thought of themselves as social drinkers but are questioning how “social” drinking is when not in a social setting or when home alone. They also aren’t suffering severe consequences or life-altering effects, so identifying their drinking as problematic doesn’t happen automatically. For this reason, gray area drinking is not a subject being talked about among friends and family and is often a hidden matter, left to one’s own assessment.

Gray area drinking

Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash


What are the signs of gray area drinking?

1. Anxiety, the emotional head game. This is a preoccupation with your drinking, whether it’s anticipating the next drink or regretting the last one. There may be a constant dialogue in your head around your drinking. If you're wondering whether your drinking has gotten out of control, that’s a good sign that it may already have.

2. "Hangxiety," the physical head game. This is the anxiety that comes after heavy alcohol use. Because alcohol increases dopamine and GABA levels in the brain, when its effects wear off, anxiety follows. Coupled with the physical effects of a hangover, which can include; nausea, headaches, fatigue, stomach pain, and more, hangxiety plagues gray area drinkers. If you find yourself experiencing hangxiety and losing productivity because of the symptoms, that’s a sign.

3. You need more. Simply put, if your drinking has increased but the effects of that drinking are the same, or if you black out from drinking, it's a problem. Building a tolerance to alcohol can lead to alcohol use disorder, so increased tolerance or drinking till blacking out are both signs.

4. Relationship issues. Heightened temperaments, sexual performance deficiencies, and arguments can all be attributed to problematic drinking. If you find yourself regretting things in a partnership or friendship that were done or said while drinking, or you become more irritable and argumentative, you may want to consider that a sign.

5. Restlessness about drinking. If you’re stuck in your head and consumed with questions about your relationship with alcohol, consider it a sign. Experiencing a lack of energy or motivation in your daily life, feeling guilt or shame about how much you drank, or not remembering how much you drank are also signs.


What is the solution?

1. Consider the circumstances in which you drink. Ask yourself some tough questions and be honest. Take a look at what’s changed in your drinking habits, why it’s changed, and how you truly feel about those changes.

2. Make a pros and cons list. Journaling is a practice that can take what’s swirling around in your head and make sense of it. Listing what you get out of your drinking and what you lose because of it can paint a clear picture of how you might want to move forward with your drinking.

3. Make drinking a mindful practice. Like journaling, yoga, or even eating, consider making drinking a practice you pay attention to. Being conscientious about your drinking can make a considerable difference in the hows and whys of your drinking.

4. Consider taking time off from drinking. Try on a sobriety challenge such as Dry January or Sober October. You’ll be joining millions of others who are involved in the Sober Curious Movement while they rethink the drink.

5. Assess the difference in how you feel. When taking time off from drinking, you can expect to feel an array of differences mentally, physically, and emotionally. Pay attention to those differences and consider keeping a journal of your feelings. You may just find your life and relationships get better with more clarity and understanding from being sober.

Here are some of those changes to pay attention to:

  • Reduced hangxiety

  • Better sleep

  • Weight loss

  • Better relationships

  • Better intimacy

  • Better clarity in all areas of life

  • More productive days

  • More energy

  • Better health in body, mind, and spirit

  • Strengthened immune system

  • Better eating habits


If reading this resonates with you, there’s a good chance you're in the gray area of drinking. This is the time to evaluate your drinking habits before suffering severe consequences and way before rock bottom comes up to bite you in the ass.

Because, unfortunately, rock bottom is often too late. Crossing the lines from use to misuse and then from misuse to abuse can happen anytime if you're not mindful, so there’s no time like the present to pay attention.

**This article was originally published by Dana Golden (NCFAD, NCRC) in Psychology Today on April 26, 2022.

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