Growing up on the sets of Disney Channel TV series and films might sound glamorous, but Alyson Stoner wants people to know that there’s much more to the story.
Behind-the-scenes of all of her fun projects, the singer and actress, 25, developed a string of conditions related to the high-stress environments she was surrounded by ever since breaking into the spotlight at the age of 9 after appearing in Missy Elliott’s “Work It” music video, including severe anxiety that led to heart palpitations, hair loss and seizures.
“When a child is voicing tiredness or crying out for help and they’re met with silence or more methods of them being able to push an inch further, eventually they’ll learn to neglect their needs and just go on autopilot,” Stoner tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
“As a kid, I learned to make fire out of fumes. There’s just infinite room for cognitive distortions and imbalance for any person who has millions of eyes watching them and whose childhood is dictated by legal contracts and unpredictability.”
Additionally, Stoner, who was considered a showbiz veteran by her early teens after also nabbing roles in films like Cheaper by the Dozen and Step Up, says she had difficulty socializing with people her age, a terrifying fear of failure and that she had trust issues “because everyone has an agenda or feeds their families off of my salary or will be gone in a month.”
“It’s hard to describe being a provider at 6 years old,” she says. “There’s a very strenuous, often co-dependent dynamic with family and team members, and I veer away from criminalizing any one person or event because there are too many layers and grey areas. Frankly, I will never move forward if I stay trapped in regret and resentment.”
Throughout much of her young life, Stoner worked on more than a dozen series and projects for Disney Channel, including Camp Rock, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and Phineas and Ferb. Being on the channel, she says, came with an immense pressure as her reputation was on the line at all times.
“We have people from all around the world who perceive us the way they want to and criticize us and compare us and pit us against each other,” she says. “I can’t say that any of us asked for this. At a young age, it’s hard to quantify and comprehend all of the facets of pursuing entertainment. I think that we could stand to educate families better.”
Unlike some of her peers, Stoner says she never had a development deal with the channel which would have provided heartier checks and guaranteed employment in a “horribly unstable” work environment.
“I was able to do films like Cheaper By the Dozen and videos with Missy Elliott because of my freelance position, but my future would require significantly different steps to get to the same destination as my peers,” she says. “That’s when I asked myself, ‘What are my reasons behind it?'”
Though Stoner had considered stepping out of the spotlight multiple times, work was all she knew.
“My love for the art was still there — it is still there,” she says. “I think the power of story is undeniable and the ability to empathize with every human walk of life through characters was a gift.”
Following Disney, Stoner completed a string of lead roles in independent films that unfortunately never saw the light of day. But she never stopped working — “almost to a fault.”
“I think I was so used to the cycle of chaos, that I would find work just to do it,” she says.
The pressure to be perfect since childhood eventually led Stoner to battles with anorexia nervosa, exercise bulimia and binge-eating disorder. 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 age of 17.
“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.”
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.”
These days, Stoner has an active presence on social media and 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.”
Now, one of her main concerns is “protecting” other children from the pitfalls of the industry.
“The priority should be a child’s health and trustworthy primary relationships and well-rounded development,” she says. “These are often the first things to be sacrificed and exploited while pursuing the entertainment industry.”
“The industry is a bubble and from the outside, it makes itself the shiniest, most important object in the room,” she continues. “But I was literally intubated by this invisible dome. It took me a while to recognize the systems and how they’re not really designed to put the child’s wellbeing first. But through it all, I transcended it and without that, I wouldn’t be who I am today and I’m now claiming my story and my identity, and I’m just ready for what’s ahead.”
For more on Stoner’s life, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.