For the first time, Alyson Stoner is opening up about the extent that child stardom impacted her life.
After the actress and singer burst into the spotlight at age 9 when she appeared as the pig-tailed dancing kid in Missy Elliot’s “Work It” music video, roles in films like Cheaper by the Dozen, Step Up and the Disney Channel original Camp Rock soon followed. Stoner was considered a showbiz veteran by her early teens, but fame and nonstop work took a toll on both her emotional and physical well-being.
“As a kid, I learned to make fire out of fumes,” Stoner, 25, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “It’s all I knew.”
When she was only 6 years old, Stoner started developing health problems related to her high-stress environment in the industry, including severe anxiety that led to heart palpitations, hair loss and seizures. She also says she had trust issues, difficulty socializing with people her age and a terrifying fear of failure.
The pressure to be perfect eventually led to battles with anorexia nervosa, exercise bulimia and binge-eating disorder.
“Some people are complimentary of me when it comes to maybe not acting out in ways that they see other child stars behaving,” she says. “I was acting out, but I chose vices that were societally acceptable and praiseworthy.”
At one point, Stoner says she got so thin that casting directors wouldn’t even let her read lines when she went on auditions.
“They would just tell me that I need help and [need] to go home and take care of my health because my eyes were sunken in and I was tired and lifeless,” she says. “The scary part is I wasn’t even the smallest person on set.”
In 2011, Stoner was hospitalized and admitted herself to rehab for further treatment of her eating disorders. At the time, she was 17 years old and a few months away from her 18th birthday.
“I had actually wanted to get help for some time, and my schedule didn’t allow for it,” she says. “So I had already needed hospitalization, but I had to complete projects. The second that I finished the contract, I told my family that I was going. They knew. Everyone around knew.”
While in treatment, she was diagnosed with her eating disorders, as well as generalized anxiety disorder, OCD tendencies and alexithymia, which is a dysfunction in emotional awareness often linked to PTSD.
“I chose to keep the process private in order to put legitimate healing first,” she says. “Before treatment, the dietician estimated my caloric intake to be less than 700 calories with an average of two to eight hours of intense exercise a day. I have entire journals breaking down the grams of polyunsaturated fat and added sugar in every bite I ate.”
She adds: “I still have my hospital gown, binder and letters from other patients tucked in a drawer as a reminder of one of the best choices I’ve made for my health.”
When Stoner got out of rehab, she asked herself: “How much of my health am I willing to sacrifice for my job?”
“That’s sort of the beginning of the transition to digital,” she continues. “It further cemented the need for me to take control of my story and career.”
Now, she releases music independently. Most recently, she dropped her raw new single, “Stripped Bare,” and in the music video for the song, which was released on Wednesday, Stoner shaves her head as she gets real about her past.
“Shaving my head is an act of mental health and confidence, not self-destruction,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many beliefs and opinions and insecurities fell to the floor with every tuft of hair, and I’m leaving them there. I’m shedding one era and rising as a new being in real time.”
These days, Stoner prides herself on living a minimalist lifestyle. She sold her home and now lives in a small, studio apartment, wears all hand-me-down clothes, gets her food from a local farmers market and she doesn’t have a TV or Netflix account.
After five years of balanced eating, Stoner has transitioned to a plant-based diet to match her own personal values. She doesn’t own a scale, and she’s focused now on individualized wellness from the inside-out.
Though she says she has been on the verge of quitting show business “every week,” her love for the art and the community she has built with millions of fans keeps bringing her back.
“I still have so many stories to share,” she says. “Anything I can do to bridge the gap between perspectives and help people learn the same positive things that I’ve learned is a privilege and I don’t take it lightly.”
With her new song “Stripped Bare,” Stoner wants people to know that it’s an anthem and the beginning of all that’s ahead.
“I just want [fans] to soak in it and find themselves in this story and use it as a weapon for their own good,” she says. “I want them to know that I’m really grateful for their support and I just hold our conversations so precious and so near to my heart. Please continue sharing your stories with me. I want us to be able to grow together and make a real impact together.”
She adds: “I really believe that the next 10 years are going to be much better than the last ten years.”
For more on Stoner’s life, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.