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Although it is not a precise term, “Gray Area Drinking” might be helpful for those who are unsure about their relationship to alcohol.

COVID-19 shows that many Americans turn to alcohol for help. Research suggest that 60% of peopleThey are now drinking much more than before the 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. The term is used to describe people who consume alcohol regularly but not those with the criteria for alcohol dependence.

Are you curious about grey area drinking? The following are important facts about grey area drinking.

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.

This is a potentially large group.

It 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. However, many Americans are unaware that the legal limit for heavy drinking has been set lower. Officials from the Health Department consider it. to be anything above eight drinks per weekFor women, 15 drinks per week are allowed 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. They say that drinking is a problem. is a problemIt can cause problems in relationships, school and in the way a person thinks.

Gray area drinking is a useful tool. People often turn to certain guidelines to determine whether they are suffering from a medical condition. 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 ParkA Denver-based health coach, who focuses her practice on grey area drinking. The two extremes in drinking are one with severe addiction and another who drinks only a handful of times per 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.”

Different people may have different views on gray area drinking. People may not be able to drink regularly at home but drink excessively out on the social scene, which can lead 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 are only a small part of the gray area in 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. Certain people may benefit from these types of evidence-based treatments used for alcohol use disorderTherapy, inpatient programs, and peer support groups are all available. You can also get prescription medications.

Park is one of many coaches who emphasize abstinence. 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. You can contact them with a harm reduction modelOne might try to reduce the days that they drink or establish clear end and begin 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.


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