What is grey area drinking and how can coaching help?

Maureen was tired, stressed, suffering from low-level anxiety, busy at work, busy at home, in fact, just busy. And the one thing that popped into her mind at the office, after dealing with yet another interruption, was the thought of a soothing glass of wine when she got home. Something crisp, cold, minerally and white. Chablis perhaps? 


Arriving home to a messy house - there had not been enough time to tackle the dishes before racing out that morning - she got the basics of dinner together. She already felt depleted. The kids were doing their homework. Her husband was having some downtime by playing five a side at the local leisure centre and she realised there’d be no chance of some downtime for her, so her thoughts returned to the glass of wine she'd been promising herself all afternoon. Something to keep her company while she cooked, take the edge off proceedings. And maybe at least one more once the kids were in bed. 

With the first few mouthfuls, Maureen felt that initial rush, beautiful relief, oh yes, ‘the hit’ as she liked to think of it; instant relaxation. Later she’d just be going through the motions, but those first few sips were always amazing. 

Exhausted by bedtime, but somehow too tired to get off the sofa, Maureen finally made her way to bed. Sleep came easily and heavily, but during the early hours things were fitful, and the next day was as tired and anxious as the day before.

It was a pattern that would repeat itself day in and day out. Maureen had recently begun to admit to herself that she had a troubled relationship with alcohol. Not a physical addiction, or the low point associated with seeing alcoholics on park benches, but nonetheless a habit that she couldn't quite define. She could easily forgo a drink, in fact, she sometimes took breaks from it. 

However, the association with relaxation and reward was so ingrained that she no longer knew how to wind down without a drink. Plus, being on the brink of menopause, she felt a nagging low-level anxiety that an evening tipple helped take the edge off. But the relationship with alcohol felt muddy, unhelpful even, and she knew that poor sleep was compounding her anxiety. Was alcohol taking more than it was giving? Maureen couldn't understand, many of her friends drank in a similar way - so what was the problem?

What is grey area drinking?

Maureen is what we now call a grey-area drinker. The term was first coined by Jolene Parkes in her TEDx talk five or so years ago. She identified that alcohol use is on a spectrum, with the occasional drinker or teetotaller at one end and the rock-bottom physically addicted alcoholic at the other. And then somewhere in the mid to upper scale is the grey area drinker. Here are some key pointers:

  • A grey area drinker may not drink every day, but they think about drinking a lot and find relief when they drink.
  • They might open a bottle of wine intending to have a glass but will have several.
  • They foster friendships that normalise their own drinking habits.
  • They do Sober October or Dry January to reassure themselves that they can give up, but then revert to old habits.
  • They ay have rules around drinking, avoiding certain nights of the week, for example.
  • They often feel shame or guilt when they think about their drinking or how they behaved when they drank, but don't know how to stop. AA doesn't feel like the right place, and it's difficult to know where to turn.
  • Stopping drinking might mean admitting there's a problem (very difficult to do in an alcohol-centric world), or the possibility of losing friendships or  feeling 'what else do I do in my spare time, how am I going to socialise?'

The problem with saying you want to stop

Drinking is a universal habit that 'brightens' up nearly every social event; it's difficult to avoid. When you decide not to drink, you don't get a congratulatory slap on the back as you do when you announce you're going to give up cigarettes. You might feel you’ll be treated with suspicion. Some friends won't like it, as they see alcohol consumption as some social bedrock; although considering whether being alcohol-free is actually an uncomfortable mirror to their own drinking habits.

GABA, dopamine and cortisol - calm, reward and anxiety

That initial 'hit' one gets when drinking alcohol is the neurotransmitters dopamine and GABA. Dopamine is associated with the reward/pleasure pathways in our brains. GABA inhibits anxiety and helps the body relax and be calm. Cortisol is a stress hormone, a component of our sympathetic nervous system - the flight/fight/freeze system. Too much cortisol affects our ability to produce serotonin, the happy hormone, and can alter dopamine and GABA production. 

So when Maureen had her first drink, the instant pleasure she experienced was dopamine. Her GABA receptors also ramped up, relaxing and calming her. As GABA increases, the brain swings the pendulum in the opposite direction to maintain balance, meaning that those feelings of calm dry up just as cortisol levels rise, increasing anxiety. As alcohol leaves the body, cortisol levels rise again, and if you've ever experienced 'hanganxiety', the day after a night out, you'll know exactly what this feels like. In short, alcohol initially relieves anxiety but then delivers it in spades. 

Drinking and menopause

Add menopause into the mix and the effects can be worse. A client recently said to me, "lots of my friends gave up drinking at 40, but the ones over 50 wish they had given up but can't." This is such a tricky time to be habitually drinking. Typically women in perimenopause and menopause experience increased anxiety due to hormonal changes. So it's easy to understand why a woman might reach for the bottle to relax, but end up feeling more anxious. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Grey area drinking compounds the effects of menopause, not just anxiety, but sleep disorders, hot flushes, heart health, bone density and so on. Additionally, the liver changes with age, especially during the menopause years, so the body simply isn't able to process alcohol as it once did. So if you've ever heard someone say, "I just can't drink like I used to!", this is maybe why.

So how can the grey area drinker get help?

Firstly, it’s important to be sure you don’t have a physical dependency on alcohol. Withdrawal from alcohol can be fatal and has to be done under medical supervision. For grey-area drinkers, however, coaching is an excellent proposition.

Mindset and habit are at the heart of a coach’s work. Often clients come to us because something feels amiss in their lives, driving poor behaviours, habits or beliefs. Grey area drinking is no different in that something is making the client out of kilter with their lives, their values and/or belief systems; something needs to be addressed - along with a whole lot of education and support.

Coaching is all about encouragement and accountability: a safe space to turn up as your rawest, most honest self, and be open to exploring a different way of life. 

I start by working with my clients by assessing their drinking patterns, encouraging them to commit to a period of abstinence, usually 30 days, and build a vision of the future without alcohol. We look at values, and aspects of life that aren’t working, and find ways for the individual to reconnect with themselves.

We find out what it is that alcohol actually numbs them from a busy life, overwhelm, a career that no longer works for them, crazy family life, pressure etc. We look at the physical side of alcohol consumption: health, diet, nutrients, sex drive, neurotransmitters and hormones. We also examine triggers, sugar cravings - and a wealth of other things. And if you take alcohol out of your life, there’s suddenly lots of time and energy to be spent on other things.  It's a process of education and support that helps the client envisage, act out and transform themselves.

Ultimately giving up alcohol gives you: time, better skin, better health, potentially a longer life, reduces cancer risk significantly, calm and self-control, money, enriched relationships, and a better and forgiving understanding of yourself. It’s a fast track to self-love. 

Alcohol-free is big business

The great news is, the alcohol-free movement is now big business. Sober socials and club nights are cropping up all over the place as well as alcohol-free pubs and shops/bars. There is a growing variety of alcohol-free wines and botanicals on the market, along with well-known brands providing delicious alternatives and mixers. These were once marketed to the drivers amongst pub-goers, but these days, with more and more people making healthier lifestyle choices, the market has boomed.

While some people don’t want to mimic the old habit of having the same drink with no alcohol in it, others find it useful to have a party drink or a treat at the end of a busy day that isn’t going to do them harm. The bottom line is, the alcohol-free movement is gaining traction and is a joyous and thriving place.

If you are starting to question your drinking, hearty congratulations. You may feel alone but you are not. Please take shame and guilt out of the equation - it’s not worth hanging on to - and take a step forward. You are part of a growing number of people who realise that an alcohol-free lifestyle is more compatible with an abundant life. It is a sociable choice that puts your physical health first and has a knock-on effect on your mental health. 

Reach out, tell someone, and start a new story. There is a whole world out there waiting for you. If you would like to explore your sober adventure some more, please contact me

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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