'Gray Area Drinking' Is More Common Than You Think—And It's Treatable

Friends having a drink at a cafe

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Key Takeaways

  • For some people, drinking has been a way to cope with stress and emotions during the pandemic. But it’s not always the healthiest coping mechanism.
  • Especially for women, stress in home, work, and social settings can lead to emotional drinking.
  • Even if a person does not have alcohol use disorder, emotional drinking can be a habitual and unhealthy activity, sometimes referred to as “gray area drinking.”

Kelly Belew, 44, spent the bulk of her adult life in a problematic relationship with alcohol, but she didn’t always recognize the warning signs. 

What started as a college party lifestyle merged into drinks by the pool, happy hours, and nights out with friends—many of which she didn’t remember the next morning. And because drinking is so “normalized” among college students and young professionals, Belew says she dismissed her problem by telling herself that everyone else was drinking heavily, too.

“I was blacking out often, I was definitely engaging in behaviors that I would not do when I was sober, I was putting myself in dangerous situations, but I really didn't recognize that at the time,” Belew tells Verywell. 

She took a brief sobriety stint in 2013 while pregnant with her daughter but turned back to alcohol shortly after her daughter’s birth. While the break brought noticeable improvements to Belew’s mental and physical health, it also planted a deceptive thought inside her: Since she could take a break, she didn't have a drinking problem.

Eventually, Belew couldn’t ignore alcohol’s negative impact on her life. Taking inventory of the blackouts, hangovers, and an expensive DUI, Belew says she didn’t just “want” to stop drinking. She had to.

Kelly Belew with her daughter
A selfie of Kelly Belew and her daughter.

Photo courtesy of Kelley Belew

What Is 'Gray Area Drinking'?

As pandemic-induced stress has led to an increase in heavy drinking among women, Belew now helps other women navigate sobriety through East Coast Sober Squad, a group for people to talk about alcohol related challenges and receive support.

East Coast Sober Squad is open to anyone who is working through sobriety or questioning their relationship with alcohol. The support group has been holding virtual meet-ups throughout the pandemic.

Many women in the East Coast Sober Squad identify as “gray area drinkers,” according to Belew. They may not be a “rock bottom” drinker, but they still struggle with alcohol.

About 90% of people who drink excessively do not have a severe AUD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet these people can still experience drinking problems, which cause trouble in their relationships, in school and in how they think or feel. 

What Is 'Gray Area Drinking'?

Gray area drinking is when someone experiences a drinking problem, but does not have severe alcohol use disorder. People in the gray area may find themselves using alcohol in excess, or in emotional ways.

Jennifer Rose, a certified life coach who works with women on identifying and shifting away from gray area drinking habits, says her clients can dismiss the problem by citing that drinking has not interfered with their daily life. 

“Anytime you feel that alcohol might be showing up as a problem for you, it probably is,” she tells Verywell.

Once a gray area drinker herself, Rose says her former “wine o’clock” habit contributed to anxiety, exhaustion, overwhelming emotions, and trouble sleeping. Going sober didn’t solve all these problems, but it reduced their impact. And she felt good.

Rose works with clients to identify not only how drinking makes them feel, but how their feelings affect their decision to drink.

“There's a lot more to the habit of drinking than just a beverage choice,” Rose says. “There are emotional components to it; there are thoughts that intrude or keep us grounded in behaviors that we don't like; there are physical, physiological pieces that need to be addressed. Each person comes to the table with a different set of issues in these regards.”

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by being unable to stop using alcohol despite adverse consequences to a person’s health, social life, or work life, according to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA).

Some indicators that you may be experiencing AUD include:

  • You are unable to stop drinking, or take a break
  • You need more alcohol to feel its effects
  • You continue to drink despite personal or professional problems
  • Drinking is occupying your thoughts

The Pandemic’s Impact on Gray Area Drinking

Recent studies have linked pandemic-induced stress to an increase in heavy drinking, particularly among women. Traumatic events, like the onset of COVID-19, and social isolation induced through quarantine can both play a role in increased drinking.

A combination of family, household, workplace, and social pressures can make some women prone to gray area drinking, Rose adds.

“A lot of women are turning to alcohol in a way to help them to manage their lives, when in fact it's probably playing to their disadvantage and they don't even realize it,” she says.

For Rose's clients, the pandemic has altered their drinking habits in one of two ways. Some women used quarantine as an opportunity to take a break from social drinking and examine their relationship with alcohol. For others, isolation prompted them to drink more.

In 2020, alcohol sales increased by 54% in March and online alcohol sales were up by 477% towards the end of April, compared to the year prior.

Phil Smith, MS, PhD, an assistant professor of Kinesiology, Nutrition, and Health at the Miami University of Ohio whose research focuses on addiction, says the increase in alcohol purchase makes sense during the pandemic. 

“They're going through stress and isolation, financial stress, job loss, loss of loved ones,” Smith tells Verywell. “People tend to try to cope with these types of feelings, which have skyrocketed since the pandemic.”

How to Get Out of the Gray Area

A good first step to identifying or healing a gray area drinking problem is to take a break, Rose says. Joining a monthlong challenge like “dry July” or “sober October” can be rewarding. The 1,000 Hours Dry challenge is also a popular campaign.

“Taking a break is really important to get a feel for where you are,” Rose says. “Because if you can take a break and feel really good on that break, then the question becomes ‘why not just continue feeling good?’”

If drinking isn’t a problem, she says, taking a break shouldn’t be one either.

However, it is important to know one’s limits, she adds. For those who don’t identify as a gray area drinker and are instead experiencing AUD, taking an immediate break can be harmful and potentially life threatening.

What to Do If You’re Experiencing Alcohol Withdrawal?

If you experience physical withdrawal symptoms, or cannot sustain a break, you should seek additional help and treatment.

You can look up nearby treatment centers on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) website, here.

“It's never a bad time to get some help or support,” Smith says. “People should trust their guts if they, or someone they care about feel like there's maybe something a little bit off about the way someone's using alcohol.”

It is important to express concern when approaching a loved one about a drinking problem, but not anger or blame, he adds. 

Giving Up Alcohol, But Gaining Benefits of Sobriety

For Belew and others in her group, going sober didn’t just mean giving up alcohol. It meant fostering other activities, relationships, and opportunities.

Belew renewed her love for running, which she had done frequently before her life became consumed with alcohol. She also took up volunteer activities and started a personal gratitude journal. For others in or considering a sobriety journey, she suggests making a list of enjoyable activities that can fill up those old happy hour time slots.  

“I really don't think I ever knew myself as an adult without the lubricant of alcohol,” Belew says, who was 42 when she began her sobriety journey. “I had to learn to navigate adulthood.”

Now approaching her two-year sober mark, Belew says she feels genuinely happy and content with her life.

“I got my power back, essentially,” Belew says. “My life is full now.”

What This Means For You

If you’ve increased your alcohol intake during the pandemic, it could be smart to take a break to see how you feel. If taking a break seems difficult for you, talk to your doctor about your drinking habits and concerns.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Questions and Answers.

  3. Sugarman D, Greenfield S. Alcohol and COVID-19: How Do We Respond to This Growing Public Health Crisis?J Gen Intern Med. 2020;36(1):214-215. doi:10.1007/s11606-020-06321-z

  4. Kmiec J. President’s message: alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Addictive Diseases. 2020;38(4):385-386. doi:10.1080/10550887.2020.1828537

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.