A working actor since the age of 3, Raven-Symoné was just 27 years old when she “retired” from Hollywood.
“I needed a break,” the former Cosby Show star, now 29, tells PEOPLE in the magazine’s latest issue. “I needed to grow up. I needed a moment to breathe.”
The actress says growing up on sets was “fun” but during the four seasons she spent on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, the actress longed for a more normal childhood.
“I hated filming on Fridays,” she says. “I was, like, ‘I don’t want to work. I want to [go home and] watch Family Matters.’ ”
When mother Lydia Gaulden realized her daughter was “stressed,” she enrolled her in art classes on the weekends.
And as the actress’s celebrity status continued to rise – That’s So Raven broke Disney Channel ratings records when it premiered in 2003, and she found success both on-screen and on the music charts with the Cheetah Girls – the young star began to feel more and more more constrained by her “Disney girl” image.
“I remember on one show they were, like, ‘Stay in the box we created for you,’ ” she says. “I was, like, ‘Shoot me in the face.’ ”
So, in 2012, after a well-reviewed stint in Broadway’s Sister Act, Symoné decided to walk away from the career she’d spent the last 25 years pursuing.
“I realized there had been a plan for me since I was a baby,” she says. “There was a bucket list that I didn’t create, but I just kept checking things off. So I added, ‘I want to be the youngest person in my world to retire.’ ”
After three months spent “lying on the couch,” Symoné began seeing a therapist and enrolled as a fine arts major at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
It wasn’t until a close friend asked her to take a role in his short film that Symoné began dabbling in acting once again.
Knowing she still had to “pay the bills,” she began taking on projects that allowed her to work with friends – including a role on Empire, which stars her pal Jussie Smollett and her partner AzMarie Livingston.
That “slow” return to acting accelerated to warp speed when Symoné was offered the opportunity to became a co-host on The View in June.
“I am actually surprised I said yes,” she admits. “I was, like, ‘Woah. Are you returning to your old self?’ ”
But Symoné – who considers herself the “luckiest girl in the world” to be co-hosting – keeps those fears at bay thanks to a new work-life balance mentality that calls for her to have “at least 5 hours a day” where she doesn’t have to be “Raven-Symoné” – “because she is a different beast.”
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’ve just had to smile through,” she says. “But now, I’m living life for myself.”
For more from Raven-Symoné, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now