Being able to engage in aimless chit-chat is something that most people take for granted, but if you have social anxiety, it can be one of the most challenging aspects of your life.
You find yourself in the presence of others - this is quite common since we're a social species. You first feel anxious and have trouble engaging in conversation. Then you get even more anxious because the silence feels awkward, and your mind goes blank. You can't think of anything to say, so you don't say anything, which makes it worse.
Then these thoughts automatically pop into your head. Things like "I'm bad at making conversation," "I'm too socially awkward," "People don't like talking to me," "I'm too nervous, and I'll say something stupid," "I'm boring." This sort of distorted thinking makes you want to look for the fastest way to get out of social situations. It's this cycle of anxiety that makes many people with social anxiety more and more withdrawn and causes them to miss out on opportunities to practice their social skills and gradually overcome their fears.
Communication means more than just talking. But when you're anxious and can only focus on your symptoms and the self-defeating thoughts running through your mind, you tend to miss cues or interpret them in the worst way. You can't see the forest because of the trees.
One of the most effective ways to treat the symptoms of social anxiety disorder is a combination of medications such as SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. SSRI tend to be prescribed more often to avoid the risk of addiction associated with anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines. If you're not comfortable taking psychiatric medication, you can talk to your doctor about herbal supplements such as extracts of kava or passionflower and hemp products.
Medication alone is not as effective as when combined with CBT because these problematic thought patterns influence the way you perceive social interaction and increase your tendency to withdraw. Learning how to challenge these negative core beliefs will lead to long-term improvement of your symptoms.
Cognitive restructuring involves making your inner dialogue more realistic and helpful. Imagine you were talking with a friend that's struggling with social anxiety. They're trying to overcome their fears by accepting invitations to social events and making small-talk in low-pressure situations like asking a shop assistant a question about a product. If they told you about the challenges they're dealing with, you wouldn't tell them that they're socially inept, boring, and should stop trying because there's no point. That would be mean and upsetting. So why would you tell yourself that?
Talk to yourself as if you were talking to a friend and say something more nuanced and encouraging, such as:
"Although I prefer meaningful conversations to small-talk, when I meet with people I'm comfortable with, we do often discuss ordinary things like work, recent events, or movies we've seen, so I do have some practice engaging in this type of interaction."
"Even though I might sometimes say or do something that comes across as socially unskilled, it's usually because I let my anxiety distract me. With time and enough practice, it will get easier."
"Even though people may notice that I'm nervous, it's not that uncommon, so it's more likely that they'll feel sympathetic rather than judge me for it. If someone does have a hostile reaction to my nervousness, chances are that it's because they're dealing with something else that's making them irritable. "
Start Small: The Rules of Engagement
The purpose of small talk is precisely that, to start small. When you start small talk with someone, you're basically letting them know that you're willing to communicate at this moment, and they respond by indicating whether they're also in the mood to communicate. Sometimes they won't feel like it, and even though your social anxiety will immediately cause you to think it was something you did that made them turn down the invitation, it's more likely that the reason is something else entirely.
You also need to keep in mind that since small talk is simply a tool people use to see if someone is interested in starting a conversation, you don't really need to blow them away by how funny, intelligent, or interesting you are. The most common small-talk topics such as the weather, current events, hobbies, and so on are not really meant to be very interesting. They're simply something anyone can talk about, so they're good for breaking the ice.
You can even prepare some topics in advance. Generally speaking, it's safe to talk about the weather, entertainment (movies, TV series, music), sports, hobbies, work, family, and travel. Mild enjoyment will be had by all. Talking about news and current events is a bit tricky because if it gets political, you don't want to end up in a debate with an interlocutor you just met. It's usually not a good idea to talk about politics, religion, money, and sex. You should also avoid topics that are too dark such as death, and topics that are too narrow such as niche hobbies.
Most often, small talk works by giving your interlocutor something they can ask follow up questions about to keep the conversation going, and they will do the same for you. For example, they ask you what you did this weekend, and you say that you've been reading the latest book by X author and you're really enjoying it. If they don't ask many questions or change the subject, it probably means they're not that interested in books or don't know much about that author. Small talk goes back and forth as people try to find common interests they can talk about more in-depth and get to know each other.
Combine Conversation with Activities
Keeping a conversation going, especially when you don't know someone that well and you're still at small-talk level, is difficult even when you don't have social anxiety. That's why people lie to combine conversation with various activities such as playing board games, attending a sporting event, watching a movie, and so on.
It gives you something to talk about, and if there are breaks in the conversation, it's ok, because you have something to do in the meantime.
The problem with lunches and dinners is that you're kind of stuck there. You have to wait for someone to bring you your meal. Then you have to eat it, have dessert, and another drink after dessert. During all this you have to make conversation. If you run out of ideas, there's not much inspiration in your environment other than talking about the food you're eating.
If you find that you still have some trouble keeping a conversation going because you get nervous, you can join a club and engage in small talk knowing that awkward pauses can easily be overcome by continuing the activity or talking about it.