Gray Area Drinking – Socializing or Self-Medicating?

Blurry party scene to depict gray area drinking

When does drinking go from gray to red alert?

Gray area drinking (GAD) is the often difficult-to-define space between social drinking and damaging alcohol consumption. A couple of glasses of wine with your significant other after a grueling day or a cocktail from the roving golf cart bar on the links is acceptable, right? What about a stiff drink before a party to take the edge off social anxiety? How do we know whether drinking habits are safe or potentially dangerous?


With 31.1% of U.S. adults experiencing an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives (NIMH), there are many “good excuses” for using alcohol as a stress reliever. But when does drinking go from gray to red alert? It may surprise you to know that your “acceptable-range” drinking is considered heavy drinking by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).


Heavy Drinking is Defined As:

  • For men, consuming more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week.
  • For women, consuming more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks per week.
  • A ‘drink” is five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.


According to Dr. Gilbert Masterson, Sanford Behavioral Health’s Chief Medical Officer, “The problem is that alcohol actually works well to quell anxiety and depression. However, alcohol tampers with your brain. It steals certain chemicals that, in turn, make you anxious. So as you drink to help with anxiety, you get more anxious. It might work in the short run but becomes a vicious circle.”


There is nothing wrong with a casual drink for the lion’s share of folks who can drink responsibly. But for those with an alcohol use disorder, alcohol hijacks the brain – it causes them to continue to drink even when it negatively impacts their lives. When this happens, it is apparent to those around them there is a problem. Gray area drinking is not as easy to define because GADers may not exhibit telltale signs. The rule of thumb is if you worry about your alcohol consumption or it begins to affect work or personal relationships, it’s time to make a change.


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gray area drinking window view of a bar

Where to Begin – Mindfulness and Gray Area Drinking

Where to begin? We have an expression at Sanford Behavioral Health – everything in moderation. No one is telling you to quit drinking altogether. Still, if you underreport drinking, have a loved one questioning you about your drinking, consistently drink to quell anxiety, or attempt to stop/cut back but return to problematic drinking repeatedly, it might be time to seek professional help.


Dr. Masterson says, “Remember the pandemic? It changed many things for those of us in addiction, eating disorders, and mental health treatment. Since the pandemic, most of those who walk through our doors have developed significant depression or anxiety. Also, at least 75% are already taking psychotropic medications. Somebody has tried to treat their symptoms without looking at the whole picture – the whole person. We used to have the expression “self-medication” that went out of vogue. But that also seems to be happening with people using alcohol to self-medicate depression and anxiety.”



An excellent way to begin monitoring gray area drinking is with mindfulness. This does not necessarily mean meditation, yoga, or mountaintop contemplation (although they are all good long-term choices to help with anxiety). “How I conceptualize mindfulness for those who are skeptical is to condense it to one word – notice,” says Sanford’s Clinical Manager of Eating Disorders, Justyne Ortquist. “I feel like I say that word a million times a day. Notice. What are you noticing? Start by paying attention and not necessarily reacting. Gather information about your behavior. Notice it.”


In other words, before you habitually open the refrigerator to grab a beer after work because it was a lousy day, notice the world around you. Take six deep breaths. Question why you want the drink.  Are you thirsty? Is there an urgency? Notice that you have not changed out of work clothes, are alone in the house, or that your dog/child/significant other is in the room seeking attention. Notice also that it is a beautiful day, and a walk (or even a sit on the front porch) is a better option to calm the nerves.

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Mindfulness, Manageable Stress & Addiction Treatment


Sanford Behavioral Health is licensed and accredited as an addiction, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving all of Michigan and beyond. Each of Sanford’s facilities in Greater Grand Rapids is carefully and diligently crafted to create a welcoming and comforting environment. Sanford is led by a psychiatrist-led team of medical, clinical, and support personnel providing medication-assisted, evidenced-based treatment to residential, outpatient, and telehealth patients. For more information, visit