January 18, 2016 10:45 AM

Hayden Panettiere has been in the limelight for nearly two decades, but says walking the red carpet is “so new” again after undergoing treatment for postpartum depression.

“It feels different for me because of things that I’ve gone through recently, over the last year,” the Nashville star told PEOPLE exclusively on the red carpet for the Critics’ Choice Awards. “I’ve really gone, ‘You know what, I’ve been in this industry for so long, forget it!’ I’ve been hiding myself. Just putting out the smiling face, showing people this, and allowing that veil to come down — it’s like a weight off my shoulders.”

She adds, “I’m 26 years old. I’m a mom. I don’t need to be afraid of what people are going to think. I saw how much people rallied behind me when I was honest, and I didn’t know that honesty could be such a gift.”

Sunday night marked Panettiere’s first U.S. red carpet appearance since entering treatment in October, and the actress says she enjoyed walking in front of the cameras “so much more because I don’t feel like I have to hide anymore.”

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

After welcoming daughter Kaya Evdokia in December 2014 with fiancé Wladimir Klitschko, Panettiere said she felt scared. Choosing to be open about her struggle has helped, though, she contends.

“Honestly, when I said [I had PPD] the first time on Kelly and Michael I didn’t plan on it,” she says. “We talked about it for a second, but it was just like a conversation, and I was like, ‘Why should I be ashamed or hide when it costs so much?’ It costs me so much to hide. It costs you so much to lie.”

Panettiere has used her own personal journey to address the stigma surrounding PPD, and tells PEOPLE that “there is no overcoming” the often negative sentiment.

“The only important thing to me is that I’m not causing myself pain and discomfort anymore, and I can be a strong woman for my daughter to look up to,” she says. “It would horrible for me to be going, ‘You can be whomever you want! You can do whatever you want in life!’ yet I was unable to follow the same words.”

As she tells E! News, “I was floored by the positive response. I’m really happy that I can stand up for the women who are out there suffering from this and let them know it’s okay. They’re not alone. It doesn’t mean they’re weak. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad mom. It doesn’t mean they’re strange. They can get help if they need it, and that’s okay.”

– Lindsay Kimble with reporting by Reagan Alexander

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