PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Pick up a bottle during the pandemic as a way to cope with the extra anxiety, stress and free time? If so, you’re not alone. 

KOIN 6 News has previously reported on several surveys which found alcohol consumption crept up during COVID-19, but a recent study suggests that happy hour may have extended for Oregonians — as 618,000 residents are now considered “gray area drinkers.”

The study conducted by AmericanAddictionCenters.org surveyed 3,704 people over the age of 21 on their current drinking habits. That study found roughly 27% of Oregon residents “sometimes drink alcohol excessively or emotionally, despite not having a severe alcohol use disorder.”

This behavior is classified by the study as gray area drinking.

“Although not an official medical diagnosis, ‘gray area drinking’ can be described as a space between two extreme behaviors: drinking within the realm between acceptable moderate drinking and a diagnosed alcohol use disorder,” the study stated. “Those who drink within this area may use alcohol in emotional or excessive ways, which can lead to problems in terms of mental health, relationships and work.”

According to the study, most of the participants who exhibited behaviors that would classify them as gray area drinkers did not believe they had a substance abuse problem.

The research suggests these individuals may be less aware of problematic consumption habits due to an increased normalization of drinking during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, some turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism for the stress and anxiety of everyday life, increasing their drinking habits slowly but surely, but not recognizing the impact of these incremental increases,” the study explained. 

The organization continued, “…if everyone around them is drinking the same amount or more, it may normalize or diminish the consequences of these actions.”

The study also found people between the age of 25 and 34 were among the highest percentage of gray area drinkers with almost 32% matching the behavioral description. 

According to the research, residents between the age of 35 and 44 reportedly had the second-highest percentage of gray area drinkers with 25% meeting the study’s criteria — a slight increase from the 24% of gray area drinkers reported between the ages of 18 and 24.

The survey showed over one third of the participants had a relaxed attitude regarding gray area drinking, a view which The American Addiction Center suggests could eventually lead to those individuals developing a more serious alcohol use disorder down the road.

“When asked if they consider gray area drinking a problematic habit, more than one-third (36%) of people actually said they don’t view it as an issue,” the study stated. “This could be a serious concern when it comes to the warning signs of gray area drinking, as some may not identify these as worrisome, thus, potentially leading to worse complications.”

The blurring of boundaries surrounding excessive alcohol use may be a result of a lack of education, according to the study, which found nearly half of those surveyed were unaware of the CDC’s official guidance on alcohol consumption when considering their personal drinking habits.

However, the study also suggests the classification for extreme alcohol use may be too low stating, “The CDC says that a majority (90%) of those who drink excessively don’t actually meet the clinical criteria for severe alcohol use disorder, but simultaneously, these criteria are lower than many people realize.”

According to official guidance, severe alcohol use disorder is classified as anything over eight drinks per week for women, and over 15 drinks per week for men. 

“With the boundaries of excessive drinking now blurred, it can become tricky to prevent problematic habits from worsening,” the study claims. “If not addressed, gray area drinking can quickly lead to more serious problems, such as alcohol use disorder or the development of other dependencies.”

According to the study, some primary signs of gray are drinking include often drinking more than intended, actively questioning a relationship with alcohol, and not being able to stop at will or go a day without drinking.

The American Addiction Centers offers resources for anyone who may be struggling with substance use.