Christmas food Smorgasbord people toasting dinner party
The Winter Issue

What's Really Driving You to Drink?

From eggnog at Thanksgiving dinner to champagne on New Year's Eve, alcoholic beverages are embedded in the cultural celebrations we know collectively as "the holiday season." While there's no denying that these drinks taste great, for many of us, the way we use them to get through this time of year can get a little tricky.

Everyone deserves time off, rest, and to let loose on occasion, and having a drink or two is something that a large percentage of people use to do those things. But imbibing alcohol can become a problem if we become addicted. The trouble is, how can a person tell?

To help us understand the differences between drinking for enjoyment (aka 'reward drinking') or using alcohol as a form of escapism (aka 'relief drinking'), we spoke to two addiction specialists.

Ahead, we'll delve deep into the role of alcohol at holiday gatherings, how to tell the difference between drinking for enjoyment and using alcohol in a way that could be problematic, and steps you can take to drink responsibly through the holiday season.

The Role of Alcohol at Holiday Festivities

Unless you specifically curate or attend only sober holiday gatherings, alcohol is a staple of the holiday season. We have themed drinks for various holidays, and bringing a bottle of wine to a holiday party or meal is a standard gift for our hosts.

The holidays are a time to socialize with friends, family, coworkers, and other loved ones we may not have the opportunity to congregate with throughout the rest of the year, and there is an overall celebratory vibe about holiday gatherings.

Because alcohol usually flows plentifully at holiday gatherings, some people may find themselves drinking more than they intend to. Jessica, who works in communications, tells us that she gets "caught up in the joie de vivre" of holiday festivities, and often drinks more at gatherings than she thought she would.

While this is a perfectly reasonable explanation for consuming more alcohol than one had originally planned, it could also be considered the mildest and least troublesome of reasons for overconsumption.

Why Are We Drinking?

People drink for various reasons. Some people drink for pleasure, some people drink to fit in with the crowd, and others might do so to escape painful or unwanted feelings or emotions.

Drinking is enjoyable for many people, and for some, it can be hard to tell when enough is enough. For example, you may be having fun and not notice that it's getting late when you accept your next drink.

Reward-Drinking

This behavior describes reward drinking because having an alcoholic drink brings joy or pleasure.

Being caught up in the moment and having a great time is a reason some people end up drinking too much, and outside of the occasional hangover, it isn't usually a problem.

Are We Drinking to Escape from Life’s Problems?

Another reason we may drink in excess is if we're using alcohol to cope with difficult circumstances or medicate emotional pain.

Alcohol gives a temporary escape from worries or thoughts that cause distress, and these unpleasant feelings can seem worse when everyone else appears to be enjoying carefree celebration during the holidays. This perception can make the escape offered by alcohol more attractive, but it can also lead you to an unhealthy dependance on alcohol.

Reward Drinking
  • Drinking for pleasure or enjoyment

  • Drinking enhances good feelings

Relief Drinking
  • Drinking to escape from unpleasant feelings

  • Drinking is used as a coping mechanism

Some people find themselves drinking at holiday parties to cope with the stress brought on by holiday events. Seeing family can be triggering, for example, or you may not adore your boss. Having a drink can help you feel less stressed, and the jovial feelings it often leads to may help convince you to behave in a friendlier way than you'd be able to sober. Similar to using alcohol for escape, this can be a problem.

Of course, using alcohol to relax isn't as suitable for us as are other ways we can choose to relax. Taking time for activities and people we enjoy, and remembering to have an attitude of thankfulness and gratitude are healthy ways we can deal with the stress of the Christmas season.

Understanding Gray Area Drinking

There's a fine line between occasionally using alcohol for a less-mentally-healthy purpose, like coping with stress, and having an alcohol problem. It can be so difficult to discern whether or not a person has an issue with alcohol that the phrase "gray area drinking" is employed.

Because studies show that more people in our society have had a problem with alcohol in recent years than in the past, it's important to know whether or not your alcohol use is an issue.

Gray Area Drinking

Addiction specialist Angeleena Francis, LMHC, Washington Executive Director for AMFM Healthcare, defines gray area drinking as "the space between social or recreational drinking and alcohol dependency." Essentially, gray area drinking is a new and loose way of describing someone's use of alcohol that has not yet become bad enough to cause problems that qualify as alcohol use disorder or the person is in denial and has yet to recognize that their drinking has become a problem.

Board-certified addiction psychiatrist Bruce Bassi, MD, MS, Medical Director of TelepsychHealth, tells us that "like any behavior or situation that falls along a spectrum (depression, anxiety), one of the most common questions people ask is, 'Is this an issue?'" He says that we can discern whether our usage of alcohol is a full-blown addiction when the usage of it is continued and compulsive despite negative consequences.

Signs of Gray Area Drinking

Bassi and Francis tell us that signs of gray area drinking include:

  • A sense of regret after drinking
  • Blackouts or not remembering what happened when you drank
  • Legal trouble resulting from actions taken when drinking
  • Having to call out of work the next day
  • The feeling that you aren't able to control the amount you drink once you start
  • Dependence on alcohol to decrease anxiety in social situations
  • Initiating drinking alcohol more frequently than others

These are signs of gray area drinking that we should pay strong attention to, but it's important to note that not everyone who may have a problem with alcohol experiences all of them.

Francis notes that it can be difficult to recognize the signs of gray area drinking, but explains that it can easily lead to excessive alcohol use. She says that, unlike severe alcohol use disorder, grey area drinking might not lead to "defined negative consequences, such as loss of job or DUI," but that doesn't mean it isn't an issue.

What Happens When We Don't Drink at Gatherings

There are many reasons a person might not drink at a holiday gathering. They may recognize that they have problems with alcohol, they may have more enjoyment being sober, or they may be aware that they may be at high risk for developing alcohol use disorder.

Francis says that when someone doesn't drink at a holiday gathering, they may "feel they are being labeled and stigmatized." This can be uncomfortable, and a person may opt to receive a drink to avoid discussing why they're not having one.

For people who struggle with alcohol use, Bassi says not drinking at a gathering could make them feel "nervous due to having to constantly fight temptations and triggers," fearful of being called out, and/or jealous of others able to freely consume alcohol themselves.

Patty, who works in a restaurant, tells us that not drinking alcohol at holiday work gatherings makes her feel conspicuous. She worries she's being perceived as someone who isn't making an effort to bond with her coworkers, and who doesn't have "team spirit." But because she chooses to not drink alcohol for health purposes, she finds it better to deal with those feelings than to give in and have a drink.

When we aren't imbibing ourselves, we may perceive those who are as loud, obnoxious, and messy. If you know it's healthier for you to not drink at a gathering, and that is your plan, you can always duck out earlier than others so that you don't have to deal with anything that makes you uneasy or uncomfortable.

Tips For Drinking Responsibly

For people who do not have an alcohol use disorder and want to ensure they don't enter the gray-area-drinking territory, there are steps you can take to drink responsibly through the holidays. Bassi offers us the following tips:

Choose a Number

Decide in advance how much alcohol you want to drink at an event. Be clear about it in your head, and know that being able to stick to it is a healthy choice for you. If you have trouble sticking to your drinking goals, you may be at risk of alcohol use disorder.

Find an Accountability Buddy

While you could try to stick to that number alone, sharing your goal to only consume a certain quantity of alcoholic drinks may help you stick to your plan.

Tell your friend or loved one the amount you plan on drinking. "For "open bar" gatherings, assign someone you trust to get your drinks for you and let them know your goals," Bassi suggests.

For 'open bar' gatherings, assign someone to get your drinks for you and let them know your goals.

BRUCE BASSI, MD, MS

Alternate, Measure, and Add Ice

Rather than having two alcoholic drinks in a row, alternate beverages: Have one drink, then have a glass of water or some other nonalcoholic beverage. This will help slow down your alcohol consumption throughout the evening.

Use a shot glass or other measuring utensil to make drinks so that you know one drink really is one drink. If a bartender is making them, request a "single."

Lastly, add extra ice (or instruct this to the person crafting your drink) so that your drinks are smaller than they would otherwise be.

Set a Timer

Bassi recommends setting a timer on your phone or watch to only consume one alcoholic beverage per hour, as that corresponds to roughly the average alcohol metabolism rate. This way, you are unlikely to get too drunk at any point in your drinking, because of how you are pacing yourself. Additionally, you'll be consuming alcohol more mindfully, which can also help prevent over-consumption.

When to Seek Help

If you tried to drink more responsibly or have tried to consume fewer alcoholic beverages and were unable to stop yourself from drinking too much, you might be at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.

  • Do you find that you crave alcohol or feel unwell when the effects of alcohol begin to wear off?
  • Have you noticed that it takes a greater number of drinks to find relief?
  • Has a loved one pointed out that you may be consuming too much alcohol?
  • Have you continued to drink despite the problems that drinking has caused for you?
  • Have you cut back on activities that were important or gave you pleasure in order to drink?

If you've answered "yes" to these questions, then it's time to seek professional treatment.

Your first step is to seek help from a primary care physician. They will then be able to assess your drinking and assess your overall well-being. Recovery programs, psychological counseling, and prescription medication that reduces alcohol craving are all forms of treatment.

Crisis Support

If you are experiencing major health issues, contact emergency services immediately for help.

A Word From Verywell

Drinking can be fun, but it can quickly become a problem if it gets out of control. In addition to these tips to help you drink more responsibly, remember to never mix alcohol with prescription drugs such as opiates or barbiturates. The combination can be deadly. If you think you may have an alcohol problem, there is help available for you.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind 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.
  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Facts and Statistics.

  2. Roos CR, Bold KW, Witkiewitz K, et al. Reward drinking and naltrexone treatment response among young adult heavy drinkersAddiction. 2021;116(9):2360-2371. doi:10.1111/add.15453

  3. Grant BF, Chou SP, Saha TD, et al. Prevalence of 12-Month Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking, and DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(9):911. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2161‌

  4. NIH. Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.

By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.