Katherine Heigl Looks Back on Leaving 'Grey's Anatomy' : 'I Could Have Handled It with More Grace'

The Emmy-winning actress, who left the hit series in 2010, is now starring in Firefly Lane on Netflix

Katherine Heigl isn't looking to rewrite the past.

After three decades in front of the camera, the Firefly Lane star knows she's made some mistakes, but she can find the value in even her worst blunders. "I don't think you get through life without any regrets," she tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "But you can create some purpose from it."

The actress, 42, began her career as a child model. Teen stardom followed, but it wasn't until the 2005 premiere of Grey's Anatomy that she became a household name. And with that came added stress, fear and scrutiny.

Katherine Heigl
Katherine Heigl. Sundholm Magnus/Action Press/Shutterstock

The year after her 2007 Emmy win for her role as Dr. Izzie Stevens, Heigl withdrew her name from contention for a repeat, saying she "did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant" a nomination. That incident, compounded with several other comments and complaints Heigl had previously voiced, earned the star the dreaded label of "difficult."

"I know there's a better way to deal with those things than I did," she admits. "I could have handled it with more grace."

katherine heigl in
Richard Cartwright/Getty

Heigl left Grey's Anatomy in 2010, at the peak of her diminished reputation, and spent some quality time in what was then her new home in Utah with her daughter Naleigh, now 12.

"I don't actually regret leaving Grey's Anatomy — I did the right thing for me and for my family — but I do regret the heightened drama I was feeling at that time," she says. "If I'd known anything about meditation then, or had been talking to a therapist or someone to help me through some of the fear that I was steeped in, I think I would have been more calm in how I approached what boundaries I needed to create to thrive."

Heigl continues: "I certainly regret not learning earlier how to manage my anxiety better. Living at that heightened level of anxiety ... created a defensiveness in me and wariness and assuming that people were against me. I let my mind run rampant without the tools to properly manage that."

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Since then, she's been doing the work.

"The last five years has been really about learning how to manage that anxiety and to control my own thoughts," she says. "I learned that not managing stress leads to not dealing with negativity or frustration or disappointment in the proper way."

Katherine Heigl
Katherine Heigl and Justin Chambers on Grey's Anatomy. Scott Garfield/Walt Disney Television

But that wasn't all Heigl learned from her years on the hit Shonda Rhimes series.

"Something else that experience taught me is that no matter how big an opportunity or how rewarding something is, there will be moments of struggle," she says. "There will be difficulties and disappointment and miscommunications, but you must learn how to manage those with grace instead of fear."

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Still, Heigl has fond memories of her time at what was then known as Seattle Grace Hospital, and she says she'd "never say never" to returning.

"When I look back on Grey's Anatomy, so much of it was a really extraordinary experience," she says. "It feels like a dream sometimes, all of us in it together like that. I'm grateful for all of it — and I'm so grateful that I grew up enough to allow it to teach me something."

Firefly Lane is streaming on Netflix now. Heigl's new thriller, Fear of Rain, is available on-demand beginning Feb. 12.

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