Expert: Be alert for risks of ‘gray area’ drinking

Isolation and stress exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic are also fueling a sneaky risk — “gray area drinking.”

Gray area drinking falls between abstinence and alcohol abuse and the term is used to describe situations in which people drink more than they intended, or of which they are aware, in response to stressors. It can prime the pump for substance abuse issues: Where before, it was a glass of wine with dinner, then an extra one, suddenly, the person is drinking much more for the same effect.

“It’s often a problem for individuals. It’s an easy thing to overlook — just having a second glass of wine or another beer, and maybe you didn’t have that intent in the first place,” said Kathleen Burnell, director of Substance Use Services at The Center for Mental Health.

“Oftentimes, it is paired with other stressors. We have a lot of stress right now. There’s financial stress; there’s health stress; separation and worry about family members. There is a political division going on, which can lead to stress as well, because of the tension. People find themselves looking for a way to relax.”

When dealing with stressors, people don’t always pay as much attention as they should to how much of a substance they are consuming, Burnell said: “And that’s where gray drinking starts to sneak in.”

Signs of gray area drinking may include worry and regret about drinking; being able to stop drinking but finding it hard to stay stopped; drinking that doesn’t appear to be problematic to others and rationalization that swings between a self-admonition to stop drinking and the idea to “live a little,” according to an op-ed Burnell published in August.

One of the first signs drinking is becoming a problem might be an impact on daily routine, Burnell said Monday — such as sleeping later in the morning because of how much one has had to drink; socializing only with friends who also drink or getting less enjoyment out of family time.

“If you find yourself worrying about drinking or how much you drank, generally, worry is our mind’s way of warning us something is going on,” Burnell said.

That extends beyond alcohol, to other substances such as tobacco.

Another warning sign is using more alcohol to achieve the same effect as before — gray area drinking can ratchet up due to the way substances work in the human body.

Burnell also says to be alert to such behavior as self-rationalization, or putting off a task that needs to be done just to accommodate drinking or other substance use.

Legal involvement — being pulled over for being under the influence — is a red flag.

“Something that we’re seeing nationwide is an increase, overall, in substance use,” Burnell said. Isolation has been shown as a major factor.

“We’ve seen that all year long. By feeling disconnected, we tend to get a little less joy out of life and find ourselves looking for a few more coping mechanisms.”

Having more than one outlet for stress is important.

“When we do something like drinking, if it becomes our only tool to relax, then it is not helping us. Often, we get more satisfaction from a relaxing activity if we have more than one choice,” Burnell said.

The Center for Mental Health offers group and individual help to those struggling with substance use and gray area drinking. Help is available by phone, telemedicine or in person, with COVID-19 safety protocols. Call 970-252-3200 to learn more about these options.

Those who are feeling stressed or worried can access a 24-hour hotline at 970-252-6220.

The center also offers free online assessments at Access the free online tool “myStrength” at for wellness tools and strategies for self-care.

“We’re trying to connect with people wherever they’re at,” Burnell said.

She also acknowledged people are worried for their friends or loved ones who may have fallen into gray area drinking or outright substance abuse.

“We very much care about the people in our lives. It’s hard to sit there and see something where you want to say something,” she said.

Again, people can access support and strategies through the Center for Mental Health.

“We know we can’t make other people change, but by being there alongside them while they are evaluating what they want to do with their lives can be really valuable,” Burnell said.

Montrose Daily Press
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.
Montrose Daily Press | November 18, 2020
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