How AnnaLynne McCord Healed After Rape – And How She's Helping Others

06/26/2014 at 03:25 PM EDT

AnnaLynne McCord: Healing After Rape and Helping Others
AnnaLynne McCord
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AnnaLynne McCord refuses to let her sexual assault define her – and now she's helping others move on, too.

The Dallas actress, 26, recently opened up to Cosmopolitan about her past, revealing that she was raped as a teen. Now McCord's ready to take a stand, though she admits her upcoming college tour was a long time coming.

"I was in denial," McCord, who spent time in Africa advocating for sexually abused women, told PEOPLE at the Discover Many Hopes Gala in New York on Tuesday. "I got connected to fighting human trafficking because of something I wasn't admitting to. I did not validate what happened to me. I felt like I was doing the right thing, but it was for the wrong reasons."

After taking some time for herself, McCord says, she was able to come to terms with her assault. "I needed to rescue [myself]. Now that I rescued [myself], I rescue those girls and do the right things for the right reasons."



Now with her college tour – showcasing her short film on human trafficking, I Choose – McCord hopes to start even more discussion about sexual violence and healing.

One of the outlets McCord used to cope with the trauma of her assault? Her craft.

"Art therapy is what saved my life," she says. "I became an actress because acting was an outlet for me. It allowed me to get rid of these negative emotions that I couldn't understand when I was too young to comprehend what was going on, and I channeled them and put them into a play."

As for advice she wishes she'd gotten earlier, McCord says she would tell her younger self to "stop looking at the close-up, and look at the wide shot."

"Look at your life for this moment," she says. "Right here is a blip and it will disappear and it will mean something … this suffering, this heartbreak, this obstacle, whatever it is, is going to make you great if you let it. So let it make you great."

And the actress-activist has had great support from her former colleagues: The I Choose premiere on June 13 served as an impromptu 90210 reunion, where the former CW star caught up with castmates Jessica Stroup, Matt Lanter and Michael Steger.

"We got really lucky with that group," McCord says of her premiere cheerleaders. "I was like, 'You guys have to be there,' and they were. It was so good."

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